US Energy Self-Sufficiency Isn’t The Whole Story

The headline grabber in the mainstream press was the forecast that the United States, with a continuing surge in oil and gas production, could become net energy self-sufficient by 2035. That news might cheer barely turned-in Americans, but the global message in the International Energy Agency’s new World Energy Outlook 2012 is quite nuanced, at times a little hopeful but mostly bracing if you’re not deep in climate-change denial.

The U.S. might supplant Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest oil producer. Its abundant natural gas might give it cheaper energy than many of its economic competitors, a key advantage. But if there was a takeaway sentence from the 12-page executive summary [PDF] provided by the IEA, it was this: “Taking all new developments and policies into account, the world is still failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable path.”

iea world energy outlook

Marcellus shale gas drilling site, Lycoming County, Penn. (image via Nicholas A. Tonelli/Wikimedia Commons)

Sure, advanced countries are moving away from oil and coal (thanks, gas), but “(d)espite the growth in low carbon sources of energy, fossil fuels remain dominant in the global energy mix, supported by subsidies that amounted to $523 billion in 2011, up almost 30 percent on 2010 and six times more than subsidies to renewables,” the agency says.

The IEA does add that a heightened focus on energy efficiency could still give the world a fighting chance of avoiding a 2 degree Celsius global temperature increase. (In fact, efficiency nearly as much as new energy production is what could deliver the U.S. its desperately sought energy self-sufficiency, the IEA says, pointing mainly to the Obama administration’s dramatically increasing fuel economy standards for automobiles.)

But more of this sort of thing, much more, will be necessary, the agency says, in order to avoid a climate crackup. Under the scenario that keeps the globe below that 2 degrees increase:

” … almost four-fifths of the CO2 emissions allowable by 2035 are already locked-in by existing power plants, factories, buildings, etc. If action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing at that time. Rapid deployment of energy-efficient technologies – as in our Efficient World Scenario – would postpone this complete lock-in to 2022, buying time to secure a much needed global agreement to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.”

Of course, in the U.S., energy efficiency standards are often seen as the “heavy hand of government,” or “burdensome regulation,” so will see how that goes.

On renewables, the IEA forecasts that by 2035 they will make up nearly a third of total global electricity output, as “solar grows more rapidly than any other renewable technology.” Technological advances, higher prices for fossil fuels and carbon pricing are seen as factors in improving the competitiveness of renewables, but all will take a back seat to subsidies: “from $88 billion globally in 2011, they rise to nearly $240 billion in 2035.”

Sounds like a lot, but did you read the second paragraph of this story, where it said that fossil fuels were “supported by subsidies that amounted to $523 billion in 2011”? The money is there, it’s just a matter of where it’s directed.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.