The New Oil and Gas Boom

The U.S. will soon be a net exporter of energy. That could change everything

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

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The environmental impact of the natural-gas boom is already clear--and positive. The U.S.'s greenhouse-gas emissions in 2011 were 9% lower than in 2007. That's a larger drop than in the European Union, with all its focus on renewables. Why? A slow recovery and lagging demand is one answer. But the main reason is that natural gas is replacing coal everywhere as an energy source, and gas emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal. This point is crucial. The conversation about natural gas cannot be had in isolation from the alternative. If we shut down all fracking and stop using shale gas, we will get all that energy by burning coal, which is the world's dirtiest fossil fuel--and is associated with mining deaths and respiratory illnesses as well.

As the oil and gas boom progresses, however, we should not forget that there is ultimately a better future for energy--namely wind, solar and other renewables--that provides unending supply, low price and almost no environmental damage. Most of these approaches continue to be plagued by the problems of cost and energy storage. (Bill Gates has calculated that if you took all the world's batteries, they together would have enough capacity to store 10 minutes of the world's demand for energy.) But they are gradually becoming competitive with fossil fuels.

The best bet for the U.S. is not only to expand oil and gas production but also to increase funding for research and development of new sources of energy. We need more breakthrough technologies and new designs and processes. But the government should also aid these nascent technologies by helping them achieve scale--which comes only from large deployment of these technologies. The U.S. government--the Department of Defense and then NASA--bought almost half of all the computer chips produced by Silicon Valley in the 1950s until the industry could sufficiently lower its costs to be commercially viable.

We need to expect, even welcome, some investment failures. In venture capital, if you have eight failures and two big successes, that's a ratio to be proud of. But in government, one Solyndra means the whole program can die. Wind and solar are relatively small investments and needlessly controversial. The much larger question is nuclear energy. Should the government continue to provide subsidies for nuclear power? The emotional opposition to nuclear power has little to do with the data--many more people die in coal mines every year than have ever died in nuclear plants--but it does shape the political reality. Nuclear-power-plant construction remains stalled. But if Americans want a constant supply of large amounts of energy with zero carbon emissions, nuclear is the only game in town right now.

The final piece of the energy puzzle should be the least controversial. Energy efficiency--drastically reducing the vast waste of energy in homes, offices, factories and vehicles--is good for greens and CEOs, for America and the world. Scientist turned activist Amory Lovins argues that the U.S. could grow its economy to 2.6 times its size, get completely off oil, coal and nuclear and use one-third less natural gas--all by 2050.

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