America is in economic distress. The crisis threatens our national security because a nation that is weak economically cannot be strong in other ways. If only we had an untapped source of wealth, a nest egg we could crack and use to grow the economy, create jobs, raise Americans' standard of living while providing the resources needed to defend the nation from its enemies.
Oh wait: We do.
Much of it is under our feet, in the ground, in deposits of shale -- sedimentary rock rich in both oil and natural gas. Large shale fields have been found in South Dakota, Montana, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and elsewhere in both the U.S. and Canada.
Until recently, this energy was expensive to access. Now, however, revolutionary new technologies have changed the cost equation. In particular, there is hydraulic fracturing: pressurized water is used to free the oil and natural gas. One drawback: The water has to be carefully disposed of because it may pick up heavy metals and other toxic byproducts. But even more recently, another variation of fracking has been developed: Instead of water, propane gel is pumped into the shale to release the trapped oil and natural gas. Underground and under pressure, the gel turns into vapor and returns to the surface where it is easily collected for recycling.
One caution: Shale oil is not the same as oil shale. The former can be accessed by fracking. The latter -- which contains a much lower percentage of organic matter more densely encased in rock -- cannot. So while shale oil already is commercially viable, the technologies to derive fuels from more plentiful oil shale remain prohibitively expensive.
Could better technologies be right around the corner? Sure -- if policy makers and legislators are wise enough to encourage the scientific innovators, entrepreneurs and investors who, together, can conquer this subterranean frontier. Let me be clear: Elected and appointed officials should not attempt to pick winners. Government's role should be to regulate responsibly while cutting red tape, ending needless bureaucratic delays and accepting rather than reflexively dismissing competent studies that find no basis for serious environmental harm.
Case in point: the Keystone XL pipeline. Despite having been given a clean bill of environmental health, this project is being delayed by the Obama administration until after the next presidential election -- if ever. Building it would create at least 20,000 new construction jobs in the short term and perhaps 10 times that many over the long run. Not only won't the pipeline cost taxpayers a dime, it will produce tax revenue for states and local communities. And, once completed, Keystone XL would bring 750,000 barrels of oil a day into the U.S. petroleum from Canada's oil sands -- estimated to hold 175.2 billion barrels -- which American workers would refine into higher value products and then sell.
A sensible, All-of-the-Above energy policy also would support full resumption of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico (creating at least 200,000 jobs), expanding drilling in Alaska and accelerating exploration and development in the Arctic Ocean, projected to hold 20 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and natural gas.
Lucian Pugliaresi, president of the Energy Policy Research Foundation, has noted that if "we can alter the long-term price of crude oil by $20 a barrel -- let's say to $80 instead of $100 -- the savings in our import bill alone would be $100 billion per year. This would immediately foster economic job growth." And getting the price down further, to say $60 a barrel, would make it impossible for Iran to continue spending on nuclear weapons and terrorist groups abroad without lowering the already abysmal living standard of those Iranians who are not members of the ruling elite. That could be a milestone on the road to regime change from within.
Scientific, entrepreneurial and natural resources built America. Scientific, entrepreneurial and natural resources could revitalize America now, providing opportunities for people willing to work, raising revenues without increasing tax burdens, supporting successful programs to assist those in need, and arming the brave Americans who defend their country from the enemies we have been funding for decades. If you don't believe rich and growing nations are more adept at environmental protection, I suggest you take your next vacation (if you can still afford one) in a country that is poor and has a shrinking economy.
If only we had politicians who understood all this and could make the case convincingly to voters. Oh wait. Maybe between now and next November we'll discover that we do.
(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. E-mail him at cliff(at)defenddemocracy.org)