by Bill Becker
For those of us concerned about the future of the United States in an era of global climate change and international competition over diminishing natural resources, the new report from the National Intelligence Council (NIC) contains goods news and bad news.
The good news: The NIC predicts that in a “likely tectonic shift” the United States could become energy independent in the next 10 years. That’s a goal we’ve been trying to achieve since the oil embargoes of the 1970s.
The bad news: The NIC predicts we’ll get there by increasing our addiction to fossil fuels. In other words, we’ll stop importing oil, but we’ll export more greenhouse gases and make ourselves more vulnerable to rising seas and weather disasters. Surprisingly, the nation’s top intelligence agency doesn’t directly acknowledge this rather important trade-off.
That’s surprising because the NIC was established in 1979 to build a bridge between the intelligence and policy worlds. The analysis of global trends it issued earlier this month was produced with what the NIC describes as in-depth research, detailed modeling and a variety of analytic tools. Experts from think tanks, banks, government agencies and business groups in nearly 20 countries reviewed its report.
And it still got the future wrong. Missing from the “black swans” the NIC considered are the unexpected technology breakthroughs and underestimated environmental traumas that are likely to prod us into a different energy economy than the NIC describes.
The NIC acknowledges that it can’t predict the future. But its best guess is that shale oil production in the United States, along with a continuing explosion in shale gas production made possible by horizontal drilling and fracking, means that “energy independence is not unrealistic for the U.S. in as short a period as 10-20 years.” The undesirable environmental impacts of oil and gas production can be mitigated, the NIC says. It predicts that the benefits of more oil and gas production will include lower energy prices, more companies choosing to expand in the U.S., an increase in gross domestic product, an improved energy trade balance, as many as 3 million new jobs by 2030 and fewer carbon emissions than if we continued using coal.
Another outcome would be bad news for cleaner renewable energy resources. Cheap natural gas might result in “the lack of a major push on alternative fuels such as hydropower, wind, and solar energy,” the NIC says. “Under most scenarios, alternative fuels continue to provide a relatively small increase in the share of overall energy requirements.”
What’s wrong with this picture? Here are a few problems: