By David Holt | Real Clear Policy
U.S. economic competitiveness has always been inexorably tied to technological advancements, innovation, and our enterprising spirit. For a contemporary example, examine the nation’s current energy boom.
Innovators employed hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, technologies developed in the 1960s and 1980s respectively, to help create the new era of energy abundance that’s fueling a jobs revolution and facilitating a reordering of global energy markets. Today, instead of discussing “peak oil” theories, policymakers are struggling to come to terms with the fact that in November 2012 the United States surpassed Saudi Arabia in oil production.
But oil and gas fields are depleted over time, and we will be reliant on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. (As the federal Energy Information Administration’s latest Annual Energy Outlook notes, fossil fuels will meet 78 percent of our energy needs through 2040.) So it’s reasonable to ask if our nation is taking the necessary steps to position itself for a continued abundance of energy.
A closer examination of our efforts to develop the world’s largest oil and natural-gas reserves — those in the Arctic — show we run the real risk of losing this abundance. As the United States continues to delay development in the next frontier of energy abundance, other nations are racing ahead.
It’s a common myth that oil and natural-gas development has never occurred in the Arctic. In fact, Arctic oil and natural-gas development began when Russia tapped the Tazovskeoye field in 1962. Shortly thereafter, following the discovery of the Prudhoe Bay Field in 1967, oil was produced in the United States Arctic as well. Canada also charged ahead with exploration in the Beaufort Sea Basin and the Arctic Islands in 1972. Following that, our northern neighbor drilled approximately 90 wells in the Beaufort and an additional 34 offshore wells in Nunavut’s High Arctic Islands. It goes without saying that the technology used in Canada’s drilling program was far less advanced than what exists today, and yet these efforts had little environmental impact.
Today, every Arctic nation with the exception of the United States has demonstrated enthusiastic support for expanded Arctic energy development. Of note, Russia has established a number of state programs to attract investment in infrastructure development along its Arctic coast, and its state-owned oil companies have partnered with international oil companies, including ExxonMobil, Statoil, and Eni, to develop offshore fields.
Even countries outside of the Arctic have joined the rush north. China has eagerly pursued stronger partnerships with Iceland and Greenland, understanding the significant value of the region’s natural resources and its shipping routes. When the Arctic Council granted China observer status this past May, it was front-page news in People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s newspaper.
The United States government, conversely, has failed to appropriate the necessary resources to develop stronger infrastructure in the region, including modern icebreakers and a deepwater port. Even worse, its sclerotic regulatory regime has delayed companies capable of tapping the Arctic’s vast oil and natural-gas resources from moving forward. As a recent Foreign Affairsessay aptly summarized, “Washington’s unhelpful attitude epitomizes its generally passive Arctic policy. While the rest of the world has already awoken to the region’s growing importance, the United States still seems fast asleep, leaving the playing field open to more competitive rivals.” Continued regulatory uncertainty will only further dissuade investment in the U.S. Arctic and leave the United States at a competitive disadvantage.
After all, delays do have consequences, and it’s worth remembering that other nations — namely Russia and China — are undertaking extensive efforts to exert their influence over vast portions of the Arctic, as well as the oil and gas deposits that lie beneath.
The stakes involved with Arctic development are high. Unlocking these resources will provide the next generation of secure, affordable sources of energy for millions of American consumers and will increase the nation’s energy security.
David Holt is president of the Consumer Energy Alliance.