If America can take one lesson away from the recent attack on Saudi Aramco facilities – whether the perpetrators were from Southern Iraq, Iran, or Yemen – it is this. America must be an energy dominant state.
The astute observer may note that America is already energy independent – indeed, the United States is a net-exporter of oil. But, America is still connected with global oil markets, and petroleum represents one of the largest global markets – when global supply drops, prices will rise. Overall, America has yet to break even when it comes to our energy balance with the world – we will become a slight net exporter by 2020.
America is in possession of enormous shale reserves – and these shale reserves have been the greatest contributor to America’s meteoric ascent in energy production. But shale faces a number of problems. Firstly, while less destructive than coal in terms of environmental impacts (natural gas releases half the CO2, and doesn’t release atmospheric pollutants like mercury when burned), it is still ultimately unsustainable for the environment . Secondly, “peak shale” may be on the horizon. Natural gas is a nonrenewable resource, and shale “sweet-spots” are rapidly being exploited. Costs of opening new wells could reach into the trillions, and shale companies are burning through billions of dollars in cash to open new wells. Fracking is an incredibly capital-intensive and risky endeavor – perhaps this explains why 90% of shale drilling operations are not profitable. The IEA estimated a net cash flow of negative 200 billion dollars for the industry between 2010-2014- the growth phase – and most shale companies have barely broken even, or have yet to breakeven, in 2018-2019.
Natural gas and oil are useful, in part, because of their energy density. Oil/natural gas have an energy density of 40MJ/kg, compared to lithium ion batteries at roughly 1MJ/kg. This is why we will not see electric planes, or electric cargo ships anytime soon. But there is nothing special about oil/natural gas mined from the Earth compared to synthetic fuels. For example, CO2 (captured from the atmosphere) can be reacted with Hydrogen gas (obtained from splitting water via electrolysis) to produce Methane. This methane would be carbon-neutral when burned, and retain the same benefits of conventional, shale natural gas.
The energy to create synthetic methane would have to come from carbon-free sources: nuclear, solar, wind, or hydroelectric. Massive solar installations, built in Arizona or New Mexico, could do this, though at great costs. Safe, mass produced nuclear reactors such as Terrapower would also be able to produce synthetic Methane or hydrocarbons, in addition to electricity. While the initial cost of building these new, non-CO2 sources of energy would be great, the long term savings would be greater. There would no longer be a need to risk massive, expensive wars in the Middle East to protect American energy security, and defense spending could be reduced. America could generative massive amounts of revenue by exporting carbon-neutral fuels to the rest of the world.
Clean energy dominance is an absolute win for the United States, in every sense of the word. It is time for American politicians to make dominance in clean, abundant, CO2-neutral energy our utmost priority – to save the planet, increase prosperity, and avoid wars.