As someone with long experience in the energy business, including running a natural gas company in the pre-boom 1980s, I can remember a time when a debate about how to exercise America’s energy muscle on the world stage would have been unthinkable. Instead, we would have been worried about shortages and our energy vulnerability.
That all changed with the surge in domestic production of oil and gas over the last decade. With the crisis in Ukraine, smart minds are now urging the United States to see energy as a new power tool of American foreign policy, a counterweight to resource-rich Russia and a key source of leverage for U.S. and allied interests around the globe.
Finding ways to export the U.S. energy revolution is an important goal. But there is perhaps an even bigger prize if we can use the moment to launch a broad-based and bipartisan discussion about America’s energy priorities and policies for the next generation.
Such an effort would enlist leaders of both parties, environmentalists, private enterprise and the public. Its agenda would include expanding the economic benefits of the energy boom, including the creation of millions of jobs; promoting investment to protect the environment; and exploring how to turn energy security at home, including increased North American energy integration, into new options for American leadership abroad.
So far, dramatic domestic energy growth has outpaced changes in our politics and policy. U.S. crude oil production grew by 60 percent between 2008 and 2013. The Department of Energy forecasts continued growth for a decade more. The U.S. passed Russia in 2012 as the top producer of natural gas and last year became the world’s overall leader in oil and gas production. The country could be self-sufficient in natural gas by 2020.
The momentous change also has brought uncertainties about the future U.S. role in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere. As Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the former director of national intelligence, testified before Congress recently, while domestic economic advantages are clear, the “national security, foreign policy and geopolitical impacts of U.S. oil abundance are more complicated and less understood.”
In response to Russia’s action in Crimea, members of both parties have called for expedited approval to build liquid natural gas export terminals so the United States might compete with Russia as a supplier to Europe. This is an important, if partial, step. More broadly, U.S. companies have the capacity to export innovation and know-how, including hydraulic fracturing techniques, to reduce dependency on Russia.
For their part, U.S. officials can work with our allies to diversify energy supply chains, help make their markets more efficient and seek ways to consume less and become more self-sufficient. And the administration can continue to push for a major free-trade pact with our European allies. This is precisely what President Barack Obama did during his recent visit to Europe. Carlos Pascual, U.S. special envoy on energy, has delivered a similar message in Ukraine and Brussels.
Why do I think that a shifting paradigm on energy can lead to constructive engagement at home? As Ukraine has shown, there are incentives for both parties to come to the table on energy. Jobs, investment, more competitive U.S. manufacturing, less dependence on foreign oil — all have powerful bipartisan appeal.
And so should environmental stewardship. No consensus about future energy policy can, or should, be reached without tackling tough questions about emissions, alternative fuels and renewables. We should move deliberately toward cleaner sources of energy that can be economically viable.
The stakes of our energy future are big enough to compel Democrats and Republicans to overcome the politics of inaction and build from areas of agreement. During my career in the gas industry, I was appointed by President George H.W. Bush to serve on the National Council on Environmental Quality, a forum that brought together leaders of the energy sector and environmentalists in a spirit of tough but open dialogue.
A bounty of home-grown energy that we never expected to have is giving us an opportunity we cannot afford to miss. We should seize it.
Editor’s note: Mack McLarty was White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and previously chairman of Arkla Gas. He is chairman of McLarty Associates and McLarty Companies. This guest commentary first appeared in the April 7, 2014 edition of The Dallas Morning News and is republished with permission from Mr. McLarty.