Peace in the Middle East. Fixing our broken schools. An end to wasteful spending.
Some problems seem as if they will never be solved. Elections come and go, promises are made, reports are written, yet they endure through it all.
Freeing America of its dependence on foreign oil used to be one of those. One could be forgiven for cynically dismissing the chance of a solution being found until the oil literally ran out and there were no other options left. (As Churchill once quipped, Americans always do the right thing after they’ve tried everything else first.)
Then, nearly lost in the sound and fury of the news cycle, the problem was solved.
It was not through major lifestyle changes or breakthrough renewable technologies that this came about, the way many fervently hoped it would. No, it was from learning new ways to shoot pressurized water into rocks that this geological deux ex machina came to pass.
Thanks to hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and the resulting revolution in domestic oil and natural gas production, the International Energy Agency estimated last year that the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer by 2020, with virtual self-sufficiency possible by 2035.
One of the most unchanging of sureties guiding our economic, environmental and foreign policies is simply no more.
There are obviously ways in which this is a great thing. At a time when America’s economic future is looking decidedly lackluster, an influx of cheap domestic energy could revitalize a moribund manufacturing sector, create millions of jobs and turn the trade deficit into a once-unthinkable trade surplus.
Unfortunately, like the ghost of Banquo, there is an unwelcome guest at this joyous occasion: climate change. Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere recently passed the psychic milestone of 400 parts per million and continue to rise globally. The upside to high oil and gas prices is that renewables become vastly more competitive in an economic sense. An American awash in cheap carbon-based fuels could very easily sink back in the energy apathy that we’re so skilled at with catastrophic results.
In a foreign policy sense, things are decidedly mixed. America’s oil will give it a clout it has lacked for decades. Though oil, as a globally traded commodity, will continue to fluctuate wildly in price (meaning the Middle East hasn’t lost its strategic significance just yet), a reliable domestic supply does introduce a measure of welcome stability into the global market. Lower prices mean nations such as Russia will have less time and resources to stir up trouble abroad. That is not, though, an unqualified good thing. For many oil-producing nations, there is no plan B in place. The situation in places like Saudi Arabia has the potential to turn very ugly very quickly.
Fracking contains tremendous possibilities for both good or ill. Perhaps it will provide millions of jobs and solve many of this country’s most pressing economic problems while triggering the peaceful fall of some of the world’s worst regimes. Or perhaps it will give us a world where both sea levels and instability are rising. The future, as ever, proves to be frustratingly opaque.