“Radon in my apartment?” No thanks, say the makers of a video opposing a proposed natural gas pipeline slated to travel directly beneath New York City’s West Village neighborhood. The push against a project critics say risks spewing an odorless, radioactive gas into people’s homes, underscores a much wider national debate currently taking place over America’s energy boom. Thanks to rapidly advancing technologies like “Fracking,” we can now extract fossil fuels from previously inaccessible sources, like the shale rock formations sitting below Texas, North Dakota, Western Pennsylvania, and upstate New York

And that’s not all. Sometime in the next few months President Obama will make a decision about the Keystone XL Pipeline, a project that would bring oil from Canada’s tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries. Intense debate surrounding the project’s approval pits environmental costs against economic benefits, but one fact remains indisputable: oil is an outsized driver of everything from cars to foreign policy. And three years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster dumped 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, drilling in the Gulf is growing faster than ever – even as an oily sheen still covers parts of the Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana shoreline.

But as Vince Beiser discovers in a Pacific Standard article entitled “The Deluge,” the opening of new fossil fuel reserves all over the world is not entirely unprecedented. Our history of oil, in fact, boils down to one thing: every time we think we’re starting to run out of it, we develop new technology that finds us more.

“America’s rapid switch to natural gas is the result of three decades of technological innovation, particularly the development of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which has opened up large new resources of previously inaccessible shale gas.”

— Bjørn Lomborg, “A Fracking Good Story” in Slate

New fossil fuel finds are radically redrawing the map of who sells and who buys oil and gas. A report published last year by the International Energy Agency found that the U.S. is set to increase oil production so much it will overtake Saudi Arabia and become the world’s biggest producer by 2017. Talk of America’s decreasing reliance on foreign oil, however, might not be cause for celebration. In an op-ed for The New York Times, Benjamin Alter and Edward Fishman, editors at Foreign Affairs, argue America’s oil and gas bonanza will drive down the global price of oil—and while that’s good news for the economy—it could lead to political instability in the Middle East where petro-states rely on oil revenues to appease increasingly restive populations.

Of all the threats posed by our thirst for oil, the most far-reaching consequence has yet to be fully realized. Alarm over the effect of rising global temperatures associated with our fossil fuel consumption has grown alongside new discoveries of oil and gas deposits. Prominent environmentalists, from James Hansen to Bill McKibben, have argued vehemently against the Keystone Pipeline for that very reason: the heavy crude in Alberta’s tar sands is among the dirtiest oil in the world. Burning it will mean, to use Hansen’s famously dire words, “game over for the climate.” But as Beiser explains in “The Deluge” getting off oil will not be easy; we rely on it for everything from asphalt, to plastic, to fertilizer. “In short,” he says, “no petroleum, no modern civilization.”

Thanks to the current boom in natural gas production, our old reliance on oil may be diminishing somewhat. Proponents of fracking point out that compared to oil, burning natural gas produces 30 percent fewer carbon emissions. More importantly, they argue, emissions in the U.S. have fallen by more than 14 percent since their peak in 2007. And if you think that drop is due solely to solar panels or wind farms, think again. The downward trend was largely due to the fact that natural gas is now half the price of coal. However, fears of water contamination and methane leaks raise questions about whether natural gas offers a better alternative, and causes many environmentalists to recant their earlier embrace of the fuel, which some hope could serve as a bridge to less carbon-intensive energy sources.

Frustrated with the polarized discussion that casts fracking as either a cure-all for the economy or as death to the environment, Lisa Margonelli wants to reframe the debate in this Pacific Standard article. The question we should be asking, she argues in “The Energy Debate We Aren’t Having,” is how can we minimize the risks? The degree of danger depends largely on geology, the competence of drillers, and—above all—on regulation, which means, “if we could apply ourselves to the problems of fracking, the way we applied ourselves to the problems of oil spills from tankers, we could reduce many of the risks.”

Recently, calls for a more nuanced debate on energy policy have emerged. A few months ago, Nature, Britain’s leading scientific journal, published an Op-Ed claiming Obama should approve the Keystone XL pipeline since, among other reasons, the oil will be transported in any event, if not by pipeline, then via rail (with greater risk of spills). Approval, the Op-Ed argues, would bolster Obama’s credibility among conservatives and industry leaders, giving him more flexibility to focus on other important environmental issues.

The real problem is that despite increasing recognition about the dangers of continued reliance of fossil fuels, neither public policies nor markets reflect the risks of the warmer world that comes as a result. The Economist recently coined the phrase “unburnable carbon,” to denote the portion of the world’s still vast fossil fuel reserves that might cause unacceptably bad climate change if burned. If governments actually implemented their climate policies, this so-called “unburnable carbon,” would have to remain just that. So far, the world’s governments seem ambivalent about those targets, having failed to make any progress towards a global climate change treaty.

Of course it’s not just governments who are to blame. While the hunt for more oil and gas in increasingly environmentally risky places provokes public outcry, American dislike of paying more at the pump makes one thing clear: nothing will get between our feet and the gas pedal.

Further Reading and Viewing:

In Private Empire, Steve Coll gives us a look into the inner workings of the world’s largest multinational oil company—and the power it wields to not only influence American politics, but to shape its own foreign policy.

Read the Nigerian writer and human rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s account of his imprisonment and personal history in A Month and a Day. It’s a searing story of the Niger Delta region and the ecological and political nightmare its people endure in the name of oil.

Watch Josh Fox’s anti-fracking documentary, Gas Land, and to get the other side of the debate, Frack Nation, a rebuttal to Gas Land by the filmmaker, Phelim McAleer.

“Choke Points,” is a graphic illustrating how oil travels around the world (turns out it’s almost all by sea) and the potential “choke points” in that flow, i.e. the places where the oil supply is most vulnerable to attack.

Image Credit: lockthegate via flickr

About The Author

Sarah Tory
MFA Student at Columbia University

Sarah Tory is a 2011 graduate of Williams College where she majored in English Literature. She now lives in New York City and is an MFA student at Columbia University in nonfiction writing. She writes about conflicts over land and resources, wilderness, and far-off places. Sarah has previously written for Slate, Outpost, and Backcountry Magazine.