It was not very long ago that America seemed headed on a path of reduced dependence on fossil fuels—oil, coal and natural gas—and greater reliance on renewable forms of energy, such as wind and solar. “Our addiction to fossil fuels is one of the most serious threats to our national security in the twenty-first century,” Barack Obama declared while campaigning for president in 2008. Not only does the consumption of these fuels contribute to global warming, he argued; it also finances anti-American tyrants and terrorists. Upon entering the White House, Obama announced a series of programs aimed at promoting the transition from fossil fuels to climate-friendly renewables, and his 2009 economic stimulus package provided billions of dollars for green energy projects.
But Obama’s commitment to renewables has wavered in the face of relentless attacks from Republicans in Congress and the economic realities of energy production. While reaffirming the importance of green technology in his recent State of the Union address, he celebrated the growth in domestic oil and gas output and promised to open even more areas to offshore drilling. “Over the last three years,” Obama crowed, “we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight I’m directing my administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.” So much for viewing fossil fuels as a serious threat to national security.
In fact, Obama and his Republican opponents want us to believe that the accelerated exploitation of domestic fossil fuels will enhance American national security. This is so, they say, because it will diminish US reliance on oil from Africa, the Middle East and other conflict-prone areas. This argument reflects a myopic calculation of America’s national security interests. Not only will increased reliance on domestic fossil fuels perpetuate our vulnerability to disorder in the Middle East (given the global nature of the oil market and resulting oil-price dynamics); it will also expose us to a host of other perils, ranging from drinking-water contamination to accelerated climate change.
None of this, however, appears to be influencing the development of policy in Washington. What explains this fresh embrace of fossil fuels at the centers of power? Some of it is political, of course, reflecting the relentless lobbying and advertising efforts of the giant energy corporations. But it also follows from critical developments on and beneath the ground, where new technologies have been brought to bear in a powerful drive to boost domestic fossil fuel output.
Until very recently, it was widely believed that US oil and natural gas production would follow a path of steady decline, as older fields were depleted and the rate of new reservoir discovery continued its downward trajectory. It was further assumed that production in the Western Hemisphere as a whole would decline, as major fields in Canada, Mexico and Venezuela were exhausted. All this, it was believed, would result in greater US reliance on oil and gas imports from the Middle East, Africa and the former Soviet Union.
These assumptions were reflected in the projections published every year by the Energy Information Administration, the research arm of the Energy Department. In 2005 the EIA predicted that total US liquids output (including crude oil, natural gas liquids, biofuels, shale oil and other unconventional fuels) would decline from 9.1 to 8.8 million barrels per day by 2025. Because net US liquids consumption was expected to climb from 20 to 28 million barrels per day over this period, imported oil would have to jump by about 75 percent—making the United States highly dependent on the Middle East, Venezuela and other problematic sources.