The 'long war' for energy security

Since the oil shocks of the 1970s, the US has been seeking energy independence. Now natural gas is seen as a possible solution. But at best it will probably only give Americans a breather while they look beyond hydrocarbons.

David Sanders/Arizona Daily Star/AP/File
A lone truck drives down Mt. Lemmon Highway near Tucson, Ariz.

Synfuel technology had been developed by oil-starved but coal-rich Germany. It was put on the back shelf during the postwar era of cheap gasoline and was now getting a fresh look. Synfuel processing was complex and expensive, but the oil era was ending, many analysts believed. Any alternative would be useful in the new energy war.

A few years later, while on a trip to Saudi Arabia, I heard oil industry specialists speaking with alarm about a coming bust. Those higher prices in the late 1970s had prompted an oil glut. In 1984, the bottom fell out. Synfuels and most alternative energies were packed away. From Texas to the North Sea to the Middle East, oil fields were shut down and workers were laid off. 

Oil stayed relatively cheap until the first decade of this century, when it surged again as demand increased in China, India, and other developing economies. Once again, a warlike effort was urged to break foreign oil dependence – this time by developing alternatives such as solar, wind, and geothermal as well as reviving nuclear .

Now a curious thing is happening. The hydrocarbon supply chain is forking. The oil side is still costly and dependent on overseas sources. The natural gas side, which used to rise or fall in lock step, is emerging as the great hope of energy independence. As Alex Marks writes in a Monitor special report, natural gas has become so plentiful and cheap that it has fundamentally altered the energy security outlook for the United States

The natural gas economy came on us virtually overnight thanks to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. It is based on the breakthrough idea that there are huge amounts of natural gas trapped in subterranean formations, the product of ancient plant and animal life smashed under miles of geological strata. By fracturing this rock, the gas is extracted and fed into the gas network. The technique is somewhat controversial because of concern over contaminants, though nowhere as dangerous as a seafloor oil well blowout or a nuclear meltdown. 

Natural gas could give the US and other parts of the world several decades of relatively clean energy. The energy war, in other words, may be winding down – for the moment.

Before we disarm, let’s acknowledge that both the oil and gas eras will end at some point – probably before the century is out. Consumption will deplete resources. Wells will get more expensive to develop. Prices will rise and rise again. 

And then what? 

Synthetic fuels rely on coal, which, though plentiful, is dirty. Nuclear has its well-known downsides. Renewables have not yet shown the muscle needed to support a thriving global economy. Conservation always helps, but gains made from conservation are usually gobbled up by new energy appetites. (In the Carter era, no one plugged in a cellphone at night; now everyone does.)

The bright blue flame of natural gas has given us an important weapon in the energy war: time. Let’s use it to discover what lies beyond the age of hydrocarbons. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to