When it comes to oil and gas, ‘keep it in the ground’ is the worst thing to do

It has become fashionable among some environmentalists to declare that little of consequence would happen to the nation’s economy if oil and natural gas production were to be phased out. Proponents of “keep-it-in-the-ground,” say that as motorists shift to electric vehicles, the need for fossil fuels will rapidly decline, replaced by batteries that run on solar and wind energy.

But keeping oil and natural gas in the ground would be the worst thing we can do. Missing is any awareness of the enormous quantities of electricity our digital economy requires. Those requirements expose a fundamental mismatch between the high-energy world of high-tech industries and the low electricity production inherent in most renewable energy supplies.

Demand for gas has reached record levels. Natural gas is now the nation’s number one source for electricity generation, having surpassed coal and nuclear power. It is also essential for heating and cooking in large parts of the country. Industries are using increasing quantities of gas, and the export of liquefied natural gas is expanding.

So the anti-fracing groups will continue to oppose hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas. They appear to be counting on a dramatic drop in the cost of electric vehicles (EVs) and the advantages of using renewables for electricity production at a time when low energy costs have consumers purring contentedly in the new cars and homes they are buying in increasing numbers.

And don’t forget about oil. Here the focus is definitely on transportation. After all, only 2 percent of the nation’s electricity is generated by oil. But for the next few decades at least, no matter what the breakthroughs are in EVs, oil will power the largest share of our fleet of cars and trucks. According to the Energy Information Administration, U.S. demand for oil and gas will remain at the present level at least through 2050. Experts say America has ample resources below the ground to meet this need.

No longer is our country heavily dependent on imported oil. But if U.S. oil production slackens off, other countries with large oil resources will be more than happy to sell us their oil.

Still, many people aren’t sold on hydraulic fracturing (fracing). Never mind that advances in fracing technology have opened up vast reserves of oil and gas in shale formations from Texas to Ohio and Pennsylvania. Consequently the U.S. is more energy secure today than at any time in the last half century.

At the same time, the shale revolution is enabling utilities to switch from coal to gas in generating electricity. As a result, there has been a dramatic improvement in air quality with carbon emissions dropping to their lowest level since the mid-1990s.

Shale gas is crucial to a successful climate strategy, since natural gas has half the carbon content of coal. Estimates are that gas will provide about 40 percent of the fuel used to make electricity by 2035. While solar and wind are essentially carbon-free, together they supply less than 15 percent of the nation’s electricity. Without significant taxpayer subsidies, it will not be economically feasible for solar and wind to make a significant dent in electricity generation.

If the incentives are there, oil and gas producers will spend millions to show they are serious about meeting our country’s energy needs. All of that will add up to huge savings for consumers and the economy, along with significant benefits for our environmental health.

Dr. Robert W. Chase, P.E., is an emeritus professor of Marietta College.