The United States is poised to become the world's top oil producer and may dominate fossil fuel production globally in the coming decades, thanks in part to the rise of fracking, which has unlocked deep reserves and sparked environmental controversies across the country.
By 2023, the US is expected to top competitors like Russia and Saudi Arabia, according to a report released Monday by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Under this projection, the country would produce 17 million barrels of raw liquid hydrocarbons a day, up from 13 million in 2017. In fact, the US alone is expected to meet 80 percent of new demand for oil globally by 2023. Growing output in Brazil, Canada and Norway could satisfy the rest.
"The United States is poised to become the undisputed oil and gas producer in the world over the next several decades," IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in January, adding that by 2040 US will be producing 50 percent more oil and gas than any country has ever managed to pull from the ground.
By 2023, the US is expected to top competitors like Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Last year, OPEC countries agreed to combat falling prices by slowing oil production, putting a dent in global output. However, in the US, horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" and other new technologies have fueled an oil and gas boom across fields in Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and beyond. This trend has shifted the US from a major oil importer to a top producer and exporter over the past two decades.
Controversy, Protests and Pollution
The domestic energy boom comes with plenty of controversy. Fracking has divided close-knit rural communities. Activists across the country are opposing new oil and gas pipelines that they say threaten sensitive ecosystems and promise to feed an economy dependent on fossil fuels. Toxic pollution from oil refineries, petrochemical plants and natural gas processing sites sully the air in nearby communities, which are most often home to low-income people and people of color.
For example, in 2017, more than 1 million Black Americans lived within one half of a mile from an oil and gas facility, and that number grows every year, according to a report by the NAACP and the Clean Air Task Force. About 6.1 million Americans of all backgrounds live within three miles of one oil refinery or more. Refineries are known to belch toxic pollutants such as benzene, which has been linked to cancer and birth defects.
In 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux sparked an international resistance movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil pipeline that tribal activists said threatens sacred sites and drinking water. The pipeline carries crude oil from vast fields in North Dakota to Texas, where it can be distributed to refineries, petrochemical plants and export terminals across the Gulf South.
"The impact both to people's lives and to the things they depend on in the environment, whether it's water or land, is just going to continue to grow and grow," Bruce Baizel, the energy program director at Earthworks, an environmental group focused on fossil fuels, told Truthout.
Climate disruption caused by carbon pollution is also a top concern, particularly among less conservative voters. Carbon emissions from natural gas are expected to steadily rise over the next 30 years, according to the Energy Information Administration. Advances in renewable energy and vehicle efficiency may reduce domestic carbon emissions from oil over the next 15 years, but they will begin increasing again by 2035.
To curb fossil fuel consumption and pollution, environmentalists are increasingly opposing the construction of new oil and gas infrastructure, with the resistance camp at Standing Rock being one of the most famous examples. However, Brigham McCown, the former chief operating officer of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and a transition advisor for the Trump administration, told Truthout that he believes new infrastructure is necessary to support the current economy.
By 2040 US will be producing 50 percent more oil and gas than any country has ever managed to pull from the ground.
"Yes, we need to modernize our existing infrastructure, but we are getting oil and gas from places that we have not traditionally sourced these material from, and so that requires new infrastructure," McCown said. "I, like everyone else, want to be on renewables, but I think we need to be realistic about the amount of time that fossil fuels are going to be servicing are various industries."
McCown said that, by even conservative estimates, the US economy would still be "fossil-fuel dependent" by 2030 or 2040. However, Baizel says there's no room for complacency: Booming oil production in the US will have an immediate impact on climate, public health and environment.
"Increasingly, that stuff flowing in those pipelines will be exported, or will be used for the plastics that will end up in the ocean and are becoming a problem [without] a whole lot of solutions at the moment," Baizel said.
To keep the oil pumping despite increasing interest in cleaner cars and renewables, the industry is shifting its focus toward petrochemical manufacturing, largely to make plastic products. The petrochemical industry will account for 25 percent of new demand for oil by 2023, according to IEA. Companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron are expanding petrochemical production in the US, particularly along the Gulf South.
As Truthout has reported, plastics pollution is increasingly becoming a high-profile environmental problem, particularly in the ocean, where plastic bits known as "microplastics" are harming sea creatures as they move up the food chain. If current consumption trends continue, the amount of plastic in the world's oceans will outweigh the entire mass of fish still living in them.
With 2.6 million miles of oil and gas pipelines crisscrossing the US and hundreds of facilities handling dangerous petrochemicals every day, safety will also be an issue for the world's fossil fuel leader. Watchdogs warn that the regulatory agencies in charge of chemical and pipeline safety are notoriously underfunded and ineffective. Since 2013, more than 600 major pipeline accidents were reported to federal authorities each year, and dangerous chemical accidents are quite common across the nation's industrial corridors.
As a former top official at PHMSA, the federal agency that regulates oil and gas pipelines, McCown acknowledged that the agency has suffered from serious mismanagement in recent years when well-meaning employees and pipeline inspectors were pulled away from doing critical work for the agency. He said PHMSA is now under new management and Congress has allocated money to hire more inspectors, and now the agency is in a "robust position." He added that pipelines remain the safest method for transporting fossil fuels.
However, Baizel said his organization works with citizen groups and activists to monitor pipelines and oil and gas facilities because there are still not enough government inspectors to do the job.
"It's a farce that there is any kind of inspection going on. There is none; you are on your own," Baizel said.