We’ve Found a Lot More Oil in the U.S. – Should We Rejoice or Worry?

Like so much else in the energy and environmental field, recent news about the discovery of “vast oil fields in the U.S.”, that could dramatically increase domestic oil production, is a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let’s go down the list:

The good: According to projections by the U.S. Department of Energy, humans around the world are using about 86 million barrels of oil a day. By 2035, according to their projections and thanks to demand in the developing world, the world will be using even more: 110 million barrels a day, despite our efforts to improve efficiency and find more-environmentally friendly alternatives.  The world is going to need more oil, so finding more of it is a good thing.

Plus, the United States now imports about half of the oil we use.  This new supply could, according to some projections, cut oil imports by half in the next decade.  Cutting oil imports is one of the few policy goals that nearly everyone agrees on.

The bad: Headlines like this breed the kind of complacency we just can’t afford. Industry experts say we could get 1 million to 2 million barrels of oil a day from these new oil fields. That’s higher than government estimates (about 500,000 barrels a day), but even using the most optimistic figure, we’re still in a major hole here. Americans alone use nearly 19 million barrels a day now,  about 72 percent of it for transportation.

This big new find isn’t expected to help much on prices, and it will do almost nothing to change the long-term energy dilemma. No matter how ingenious and hard-working the oil industry is, there’s only so much oil left on Earth. More and more people around the world want it. Most known oil reserves are in Middle East—not here—and we really need to get going on diversifying our energy supply and moving away from fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas.

The ugly: There’s going to be an ugly debate over whether getting this new supply of oil is worth the environmental risks that may be posed. Extracting the oil in these new finds requires using a process called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking “ which is now mainly used to drill for natural gas. The industry maintains that the process is safe and that they’re taking all reasonable precautions; critics say that it poses serious dangers to the water supply. The government looked into the issue in 2004, but the study was controversial, and environmentalists continue to fight against it. This debate is only going to get more intense because of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Gasland,” which is highly critical of fracking.

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have a well-respected, independent source to examine the safety and environmental issues here and provide a credible, widely trusted judgment. Environmentalists don’t trust the industry, and the industry (and others) don’t trust the EPA.  That’s a problem here, and sad to say, it’s a problem that goes beyond drilling for oil because there are questions about environmental trade-offs with just about every kind of energy—fossil fuels and alternatives like wind, solar, geo-thermal, and for the major liquid fuel alternative, ethanol.

The truth is that nearly all forms of energy have some strand of the good, the bad, and the ugly about them. If we accepted that reality and stopped demonizing or glorifying one form of energy over another, we could concentrate on our real job—diversifying our supply, investing in research, eliminating waste, and dramatically ramping up efficiency (not just talking about it).

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