Dec 26, 2017
Column / Harder Line

10 ways America's energy & climate world changed in 10 years

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

We've gone from an energy-scarce to an energy-abundant nation, and our climate debate has waxed and waned. Let's drill down on a decade's worth of changes.

1. The oil boom

America's oil production has nearly doubled over the last decade, and we became the world's biggest oil producer a few years ago, thanks to drilling technologies like fracking and horizontal drilling. This dynamic has complicated policies predicated on limited oil supplies, including a federal ethanol mandate and fuel-efficiency standards for cars.

On the geopolitical front, the U.S. is now becoming a swing producer alongside OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

2. The natural gas boom

America is now also the world's biggest natural-gas producer, with an increase of more than 30% in production since 2008. Former President Barack Obama's aggressive environmental agenda was made politically easier because plentiful supplies of cleaner burning gas enabled an affordable shift away from coal in the electric sector.

With exports of liquefied natural gas, the U.S. is also leading the way in stitching together a global natural gas market similar to the world's liquid oil market. Environmental concerns, including about fracking, an extraction technology that enables companies to reach new sources of oil and gas, have risen alongside economic gains of the oil and gas boom.

3. The wind and solar boom

Fueled by federal subsidies and state mandates, wind and solar energy has skyrocketed, creating jobs across the country and lobbying prowess in Washington and state capitals. Wind production has increased more than than 200%, while solar's rise has been even more exponential, growing from almost nothing in 2008.

The two combined made up 10% of U.S. electricity earlier this year, a first. America is now among the world's biggest producers of wind and solar, too (though China beats us on both fronts).

4. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fall

Thanks partly to the one-two punch of natural gas and renewables pushing out coal, America's greenhouse gas emissions have fallen to levels not seen since 1994. The drop is also due to the 2008 economic recession and relatively flat economic growth since then.

Don't expect emissions to keep falling without another big change: unforeseen market dynamics like we've seen with natural gas or big federal policies requiring cuts.

5. Nuclear power and coal failures

The one-two punch of cheap natural gas and increasingly cheaper renewables is also accelerating a slow-moving downfall of America's nuclear and coal industries. More than a dozen nuclear reactors have either shut down or are set to shut down in the coming years.

Coal is facing its own reckoning with aggressive environmental regulations, technology advancements and greater concern of climate change.

6. Electricity market mayhem

The above five drivers are causing big changes in how America's power market operates. Talk about the unforgiving limelight: Electric regulators and utility companies, which only get attention when the lights don't come on, are working overtime to ensure a seamless transition from a less diverse, coal-dependent electricity grid to a more diverse one dependent upon natural gas and intermittent resources of wind and solar.

7. Republicans come around (and around) on climate change

In 2008, then-Republican presidential candidate John McCain touted a national strategy to address climate change (as did his then-challenger, Obama). What followed was nearly a decade's worth of conservative opposition to efforts addressing climate change — and in turn, a deep denial about mainstream science throughout the GOP.

Driven by pressure from corporations, Wall Street and a few of their own, the Republican Party is now inching closer to where it was nearly a decade ago. There's still a long way to go, given that President Trump doesn't publicly acknowledge it's a problem worthy of addressing.

8. Big business does too

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sought a public trial on climate-change science in 2009. Today, it's seeking to reassure anxious member companies that it acknowledges the science and concedes climate is a serious issue.

The chamber, the biggest and broadest business group in America, represents the lowest common denominator on business interests. So its evolution is emblematic of the pendulum swinging back and forth on climate change within industry and conservative circles.

9. The left goes more left

The most left-leaning politicians and environmental groups have lurched further left as their calls to address climate change grow. After once embracing natural gas as part of the solution, groups like Sierra Club and are now leading a war against all fossil fuels and the infrastructure that moves them.

This leftward lurch hasn't been as pervasive as the GOP's tea-party influence, but it has had a sizable impact nonetheless. Then-Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders pushed these positions, which prompted the party's eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton, to go further left herself in an attempt to shore up the progressive base.

10. Symbolic turns: Keystone XL and ANWR

The company behind the Keystone XL pipeline first applied for a federal permit in September 2008. The fight over this zombie pipeline is still raging a decade later. Meanwhile, Republicans and industry have been trying to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for decades. Now the law allows it, thanks to the tax legislation including an obscure provision.

Keystone and ANWR embody the tug-o-war playing out this past decade between fossil fuels and climate change. The oil boom I started this column with has driven oil prices lower, and that has made both Keystone and ANWR less relevant, for now anyway, but no less symbolically powerful.

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