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A Struggle for Harmony in the Energy World

An employee of Stewarts Inc., an oilfield service company, works on a tank that will be used in the fracking industry in the oil town of Andrews, Texas. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
An employee of Stewarts Inc., an oilfield service company, works on a tank that will be used in the fracking industry in the oil town of Andrews, Texas. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Barack Obama began his presidency promising to rebuild the U.S. economy after a staggering recession, to achieve energy independence through an “All of the Above” embrace of sources and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are changing the Earth’s climate. But despite substantial progress on each front, those goals are increasingly coming into conflict.  

Perhaps the biggest development on the energy front is the boom in domestic natural gas, largely from advances in enhanced extraction techniques known as fracking. Gas has hit historically low prices that helped to fuel an energy and manufacturing job comeback, and a fundamental shift in how electricity is produced domestically.  

The Energy Information Administration — the Energy Department’s statistical arm — projects, in most scenarios, that the United States will balance energy imports and exports between 2020 and 2030 thanks to growth in domestic oil and gas production, coupled with a steady flattening of demand as consumers use energy more efficiently.  

Not all sources of energy are treated equally. Coal is the clear target of one of the administration’s most ambitious and controversial regulatory efforts — the Environmental Protection Agency mandate to cut carbon emissions from power plants. Forecasts predict a steady decline in coal-fired power plants partly as a result of the Clean Power Plan rules soon to be made final.  

Natural gas, on the other hand, has been enthusiastically promoted as the nation’s No. 1 fossil fuel, with only a nod to growing concerns about environmental dangers from fracking fluids and seismic effects. Now there are new worries about methane releases from drilling sites and pipeline leaks. Oil production is being expanded onshore and, soon, in Alaska, leaving the burden of reducing carbon emissions to end users of petroleum — primarily in the transportation sector.  

Obama suffered a major setback in his first term when Congress refused to cap carbon emissions, but he has been moving aggressively toward the same goal. A Republican-led Congress is trying to use legislation to block, weaken or at least delay his actions.  

Meanwhile, the cleanest forms of energy remain the smallest players: permits for only two new reactors at each of two nuclear power plants in the Southeast have been issued since Obama took office. Wind and solar generation has increased exponentially with the help of economic stimulus spending and some tax incentives, but still provides only a tiny percentage of the U.S. electricity supply.  

The industry’s positive news on the production front has met with increasing skepticism from some of Obama’s early supporters. One result of the conflicting signals from Washington is that environmental groups, states and local communities are becoming the most effective advocates for addressing the energy industry’s impacts on climate change, clean air and clean water.  

A few areas have imposed bans or moratoriums on fracking — even the conservative Republican governor of Maryland has decided not to stand in the way of a more than two-year fracking moratorium passed by the Democratic legislature.  

Obama has been adamant that the conflicts between reaching for his energy goals are manageable even as they are shadowed by global climate-change concerns. “This is not some impossible problem that we cannot solve,” he said in an April 22 speech. “We can solve it if we’ve got some political will. And we can solve it in a way that creates jobs. We can solve it in a way that doesn’t disrupt our economy but enhances our economy.”  

Although the president has held firm so far against pressure to approve the Keystone XL pipeline from Canadian tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries, environmentalists fear he is tilting more toward industry’s side in major policy debates, especially after arguing that America can have expanded trade with Asia and Europe without diminishing U.S. labor and environmental standards.  

With Obama’s days in office dwindling and Congress gridlocked, industry players are left to sort out energy production with regulatory agencies and the courts. The stories that follow illustrate tough policy choices in three key energy sectors: natural gas production, offshore drilling and clean electricity sources.  

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