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Opinion | Seth Whitehead: Economic growth has more to do with oil and gas boom than occupants of White House
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Opinion | Seth Whitehead: Economic growth has more to do with oil and gas boom than occupants of White House

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The United States is enjoying an unprecedented 11th consecutive year of sustained economic growth. Predictably, both of the occupants of the White House during this time-span have claimed credit. But in reality, our historic run of economic prosperity can be traced to an American energy renaissance that has spanned both the Obama and Trump administrations.

Energy is the one thing that all Americans use. And with that fundamental reality in mind, advances in hydraulic fracturing, aka “fracking,” and horizontal drilling have allowed us to literally drill our way to lower energy prices and economic prosperity.

Since the Great Recession in 2009, U.S. oil production has more than doubled while domestic natural gas production has increased almost 50 percent. We are now the world’s biggest crude oil and natural gas producer and a net petroleum exporter. Not coincidentally, the Department of Energy reported in 2018 that average U.S. energy costs fell 34% from 2008 to 2016, dropping from record-high levels to a “record-low energy expenditure share” in less than a decade. Gasoline prices are about $1.50 below record high levels seen in 2008. Natural gas prices are at 20-year lows. And as NPR reported in August, “Cheap and abundant energy has fueled a resurgence in domestic manufacturing.”

So it’s no wonder why U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) has spiked more than 25%, unemployment rates have fallen to record lows and median household incomes have increased at the same time the United States has emerged as an unexpected energy superpower. Collectively, the oil and natural gas boom has been credited for 10% of GDP growth since the Great Recession.

But what about the environment? Several presidential candidates have claimed climate damage attributable to the ongoing U.S. oil and natural gas boom far outweighs the indisputable economic benefits and that fracking should be banned.

The latest scientific data does not support that conclusion.

Thanks largely to fracking, energy-related U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have declined 8.5% since 2010. And the International Energy Agency recently reported that in 2019, “Emissions in the United States fell more sharply than any other country, declining 2.9% from the previous year.” The United States has reduced CO2 emissions more than any other country this century, and the Department of Energy expects the U.S. to continue leading the world in CO2 emission reductions each year through at least 2025.

Experts agree that the primary reason for these emission declines is fuel-switching to clean-burning natural gas, which has been made possible by industry innovation. That’s right: the same technologies that have allowed us to emerge as the leading oil and natural gas producer in the world are also largely responsible for our status as the world leader in greenhouse gas emission reductions. The decoupling trend is unprecedented and shows that we don’t have to choose between the economy and environment.

In contrast, implementing policies aimed at slowing or shutting down the U.S. oil and natural gas industry would have huge economic and environmental ramifications. According to the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association (TIPRO) “2020 State of Energy Report”, the industry provides more than 14,000 jobs in the Land of Lincoln alone with an average annual salary of more than $100,000. These are well-paying jobs our financially beleaguered state simply cannot afford to lose.

On a national level, such policies will threaten millions of American jobs and would return us to the dark days of relying heavily on hostile nations for oil and natural gas demand that will remain strong in the decades to come. Shutting down U.S. production won’t make the demand for oil and gas go away — it will just assure that it will be satisfied by foreign sources. Do we really want to go back to relying on the Middle East for oil? And by making natural gas less plentiful and more expensive, a fracking ban would likely result in higher emissions by making us more reliant on higher-emitting fuels for power generation.

The ongoing oil and natural gas boom — not the occupants of the White House — can be credited for our historic run of economic prosperity. However, misguided White House policies aimed at slowing or stopping our energy renaissance could ultimately be to blame for ending the longest sustained streak of economic prosperity our nation has ever enjoyed.

Seth Whitehead is the executive director of the Illinois Petroleum Resources Board, which is a nonprofit organization that provides public awareness and education programs regarding the upstream Illinois oil and gas industry.

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