Natural Gas: The Next Energy Crisis? the United States Has Long Been "Addicted" to Foreign Oil. but We Now Risk Becoming Dependent on Foreign Natural Gas as Well

By Schmitt, Gary J. | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Natural Gas: The Next Energy Crisis? the United States Has Long Been "Addicted" to Foreign Oil. but We Now Risk Becoming Dependent on Foreign Natural Gas as Well


Schmitt, Gary J., Issues in Science and Technology


The day after President Bush's State of the Union address on January 31, 2006, the headline in many U.S. newspapers and in the electronic media was: "America Addicted to Oil." Indeed, a major newsworthy section of the speech was the president's proposals to break that addiction, especially from suppliers in unstable countries that can affect U.S. national security. He set a goal of replacing more than 75% of oil imports from the Middle East by 2025, largely through technological means.

Whatever one thinks of the president's policy proposals, he is correct in attributing security implications to the country's oil addiction. At a minimum, its dependence requires the United States to trim its diplomatic sails when dealing with the major oil-producing countries, costs U.S. taxpayers a substantial premium to ensure access to oil supplies by maintaining a significant military capability in the Middle East, and gives major oil-producing states vast revenues that allow them to support foreign and domestic policies that complicate the security of the United States and its allies. There is also, of course, the undeniable fact that a strong U.S. economy--the backbone of U.S. preeminence in the world--does require, as the president stated, "affordable energy."

But the president's contention that the U.S. economy is petroleum-based is not entirely accurate. Although oil makes up approximately 40% of total U.S. energy consumption, coal and natural gas each now supply about 25% of the energy consumed by the United States. So, although oil is a major element in U.S. energy supplies, it is by no means the only significant factor. Disruption of natural gas or coal supplies would pose major problems to the U.S. economy. Moreover, there are increasing signs that in the case of natural gas, the country is headed down a road similar to the one it now faces with oil, with security implications that echo oil's as well. In short, like addicts the world over who try to free themselves from one addiction only to become hooked on another, Americans may soon find that imported oil is not the only energy-source problem about which they have to worry.

Until recently, the United States was in pretty good shape when it came to natural gas. Prices were low and supplies sufficient. In 2000, for example, North America consumed nearly one-third of the world's annual output of natural gas. Unlike oil, for which the United States, Canada, and Mexico together produced only 60% of the supplies they consumed, the three countries produced nearly 100% of the natural gas consumed. Bound together by free trade agreements, the continental market for natural gas more than doubled through the 1990s.

If energy experts inside and outside the government are correct, the proportion of total energy consumption accounted for by natural gas is likely to grow substantially during the next decade and a half. If current trend lines and government policies are sustained, about 90% of the projected increase in electricity generation will be fueled by natural gas plants. Between 2000 and 2004, U.S. electricity-generating capacity grew by approximately one-fifth; virtually all of that growth was gas-fired. Analysts predict that by 2020, more than one-third of the country's electricity will be generated by burning natural gas. The reasons are well understood: Power plants that burn natural gas cost less and are far easier to build than are nuclear power plants, and they create fewer environmental problems than do coal or nuclear plants. With the expanding use of natural gas for homes and its use as the primary feedstock in the manufacturing process for a wide variety of products, demand for natural gas is expected to rise anywhere from 40% to 50% between 2000 and 2020.

The problem is that the available supply of natural gas is not keeping pace with this growing demand. In North America, production from existing wells is declining, and new wells show a more rapid rate of decline than in the past. …

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Natural Gas: The Next Energy Crisis? the United States Has Long Been "Addicted" to Foreign Oil. but We Now Risk Becoming Dependent on Foreign Natural Gas as Well
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