It would hardly be radical to suggest that predicting the future is a tricky and imprecise business. So when the International Energy Agency issued a report recently that said the United States will become the world's top producer of oil within the next five years, and that it will become nearly self-sufficient in supplying its own energy needs by 2035, enthusiasm should be tempered accordingly.
Much can change in 20 years. One need only look back to 1992 and remember how the nation's energy future looked at the time. It's safe to say few people, especially residents near depressed oil fields in the nation's midsection, were forecasting the huge energy extraction boom the nation is witnessing today.
But that boom is a product of innovation, discovery and technological advancement, and that truly does provide a reason for optimism. It gives hope that today's rosy predictions may even be too conservative. Throughout history, invention is the wildcard that ruins a lot of predictions. Problems seem insurmountable until someone comes along to discover a new procedure or a new device. Then, the impossible becomes a way of life that is generally taken for granted. People fly through the air. Diseases are eradicated. That is the story of the last two centuries, giving rise to high living standards and lengthening life spans.
In this case, horizontal drilling and fracking — a procedure that uses hydraulic pressure and sand to split rocks far beneath the surface — have allowed energy companies to extract far more oil and natural gas than previously thought possible.
In the 1980s, the United States had fallen to 6.9 million barrels a day in oil production as worldwide prices fell and extraction became too expensive. Today, the nation is on track to produce 10 million barrels a day by 2015, rising to 11.1 million barrels by 2020, making the United States the world's leader.
The question for Utahns is not whether this boom will continue — it likely will barring world events that drop the price of oil. The question is whether Utah, with its rich underground natural resources, will reap many of the rewards. Much of the state's land is federally owned, and Washington is reluctant to allow many federal leases. The Obama administration has just declared 1.6 million acres of federal land in the West off-limits to drilling. Much of the nation's energy boom is taking place on private land in other states.
Voters in Utah just amended the state constitution to require that a large portion of state severance taxes on extraction be placed in a trust fund to help future generations meet government obligations. With the nation surging toward energy independence, this seems like a good time to stock that fund.
Critics say the nation never will achieve energy independence because of its ever-increasing demand. Clearly, the nation needs to pursue innovations that would make alternative energy sources more viable, adding to a mix of sources that would help people move about and power their devices without harming the environment. But we trust that innovators can find a way to make that possible, as well.
A United States that no longer has to rely on dictators and despots for much of its energy would be a stronger and more powerful one. The dictators and despots, in turn, would become weaker. If innovation brings that about, it will be a happy day, indeed.