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Rethinking America's Energy Future

As BRIC countries surge ahead, the U.S. can't afford to lag behind on energy.

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Fracking has been a huge boon for the U.S., and the White House would be remiss to preach energy cutbacks.

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The United Nations says the globe is heating up and that there are rising risks of catastrophe from continued carbon emissions. However the United States is riding the wave of a fossil-fuel boom that has made it the number one energy producer in the world. Reconciling these facts is a critical emerging foreign policy priority.

The newly released report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change contains dire predictions should the world not cut back on using carbon-emitting fossil fuels. The authors of the study have ramped up their rhetoric from previous reports in an effort to focus attention on what they see as the inescapable consequences of business as usual. The White House, in turn, has seized on the report as justification for new “green” initiatives, and Secretary of State John Kerry says that "the costs of inaction are catastrophic."

The report highlights numerous potential risks; in fact it uses the word “risk” on average more than five times per page. But the report identifies few actual large scale changes – certainly none on the cataclysmic level of past predictions, such as ice caps disappearing in a few years, ocean levels suddenly surging 20 feet higher, rapid mass extinctions or increasingly violent weather. Those past predictions did not come to pass and are unlikely to any time in the foreseeable future.

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Meanwhile global warming theory has run into an inconvenient truth. While the UN wants the world to reduce its carbon emissions, the United States is surging as an energy power. Hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” and other technological advances have created an unexpected oil boom. Last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. edged out Russia and Saudi Arabia as the number one oil producer in the world. When natural gas is factored into the equation, the U.S. is even more dominant, producing about twice the equivalent energy as the Saudis and a healthy percentage greater than Russia. And since the United States is at the cutting edge of this energy technology wave, it is becoming easier to expand production as other energy producers see their output begin to decline.

As U.S. energy production surges, the country is also using energy more cleanly. American carbon emissions peaked sometime in the mid-2000s and have since declined to levels last seen in the 1990s. To locate the global emissions problem, look no further than the People’s Republic of China; China’s emissions have tripled since 2000 and are now almost double those of the United States, a trend that shows no sign of slowing. China has recently become the world’s largest importer of oil and liquid fuels. In the near strategic future, the U.S. will be an energy giant, and China increasingly energy dependent.

The White House is unfortunately working from an old playbook when it comes to energy. The Obama team came into office in 2009 expecting a future of energy scarcity and imminent global climate crises. It placed green issues the center of its global strategy, and stuck to this line even as circumstances changed. Last month, John Kerry called climate change “the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction," and he has made addressing global warming his “top-tier diplomatic priority.”

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

It seems odd to place primary emphasis on the possible effects of long-term climate changes when there are serious ongoing crises in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. But it also diverts the United States from developing a serious strategy for America’s future as a global energy broker. The sudden interest in finding ways to export liquefied natural gas to Europe to offset Russia’s economic leverage is a case in point. Natural gas being a relatively cleaner fuel suitably dovetails with Mr. Kerry’s priorities, but the impetus is saving Ukraine right now, not mitigating climate change risks decades hence.

The United States needs to plan for a different energy future than the one the Obama administration believed was coming five years ago. Fossil fuels will be more, not less important. They will be economic drivers, not legacy fuels to be gradually phased out. And they will give the United States renewed leverage at a time when American power is declining and influence waning.

Washington cannot reasonably preach energy cutbacks to the developing world as the U.S. surges ahead in production. The BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) which are predicted to surge ahead of the combined G7 GDP over the next two decades see talk of carbon limits as a means of developed countries stifling their economic potential. The alternative – attempting to shoulder the main burden of saving the planet by forsaking America’s future as an energy giant – would relegate our country to permanent second-class status, and do so without making a dent in the climate debate the current administration holds so dear.