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As the U.S. approaches energy independence, larger questions loom

Stacks of pipe are stored at the pipe yard for the Houston Lateral Project, a component of the Keystone pipeline system in Houston.


These all occurred last week: The United States Senate killed an energy-efficiency bill that had broad bipartisan support in part because of a fight over the Keystone XL pipeline. The Obama administration said it was considering ending a nearly four-decades-old ban on exporting crude oil. And, as Pennsylvania girded for a bruising gubernatorial primary election Tuesday, Democratic candidates pressed for new taxes on the state's growing energy sector and the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association warned that a severance tax would endanger the state's new engine of economic growth.

But there's more. The mayor of Philadelphia declared last Monday Energy Independence Day. The very next day, 64 environmental-oriented groups petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, seeking new Washington air-pollution regulations they say are necessary because "oil and gas expansion has brought drilling activities closer to heavily populated areas." And the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court took up the question of whether citizens can learn about drilling chemicals used in energy extraction.

Some 40 years after the great energy crisis, the United States is talking energy again. And the energy talk is playing a bigger role in American debate than it has in years, occasionally even eclipsing debate over Barack Obama's health-care legislation.

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That's because energy demand continues to be strong in a global market where increased consumption in one area (China, for example) has implications in other areas (North America, for example). And because the prospect of actual American energy independence – a notion that every president since Richard Nixon has trumpeted but none actually believed could actually be realized – suddenly seems possible.

That early hunger for energy independence was fuelled by the oil shock of 1973 and by the transformation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries from a loose confederation into a cartel. Mr. Nixon wanted energy independence within 10 years. That never happened. Jimmy Carter, borrowing a phrase from William James, said the energy challenge was the "moral equivalent of war." After the razzamatazz settled down, he United States seemed like a conscientious objector in that war.

But now energy independence is within reach, or at least within the bounds of reasonable contemplation. There remains, to be sure, significant debate about whether energy independence can ever really be achieved, given the interdependence of nations and markets, or whether that interdependence means that no nation can ever be fully insulated from energy shocks. But the surge in American natural-gas production combined with more modest gains in alternative sources of energy have created new promise and new debates – or, rather, reinvigorated old debates about risks and opportunities.

"There's no product or process that comes without risk, and that is certainly true of energy," says Jay Apt, a former Space Shuttle astronaut who heads the electricity industry centre at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University. "Our charge should be to develop energy sources in a way that has the minimum feasible impact on people, the landscape and the atmosphere – recognizing that that will never be zero but also recognizing that there are 'better choices' and 'worse choices.' It's very difficult for us to hold two contradictory ideas in our minds – our desire for energy at our fingertips and our desire not to compromise the environment – but on this issue we must."

Those involved with the energy industry believe that North American consumers have made their desires clear.

"Americans and Canadians in large part understand this is a society driven by hydrocarbons, oil and gas, and they want the benefits from that," says Matt Pitzarella, spokesman for Fort Worth, Texas-based Range Resources. "There's an underlying [belief] shared by everyone that we should develop those resources in as responsible way as possible."

The economic debate today is over what are the "better choices" that Mr. Apt speaks about and the "responsible way" that Mr. Pitzarella speaks about.

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But the political debate is separate, and often quite different. It involves interest groups, party advantage, fund raising, taxes – and internal congressional disputes.

The energy bill that was scuttled last week was one of the very few bipartisan initiatives in a capital riven by partisan bitterness. The two sponsors, the Republican Rob Portman of Ohio and the Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, are regarded as classic moderates, an increasingly rare breed.

They – and the core of their legislation, described by the Politico website as "innocuous and popular" and designed to spur energy efficiency in buildings – are victims of one of the guiding rules of American politics, now easily applied to energy: When an issue is hot, it is sometimes too hot to touch.

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About the Author
Executive editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. More


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