What 'energy independent' means

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I was interested last week when I came across a Patch.com article about Gov. Tom Corbett.

According to the piece, Corbett told a business audience in Chester County: "We can make Pennsylvania energy independent in the next five or six years from the rest of the world."

Corbett has said this kind of thing before, but this instance really struck me. It was so unambiguous, so definitive.

And taken at face value, so unrealistic. Yes, we have lots of coal and, of course, the massive Marcellus Shale natural-gas deposit. But what about gasoline? Even the most wildly optimistic scenarios for natural-gas-vehicle adoption don't posit a 100-percent changeover in six years.

Besides, energy markets are national and international. Oil, coal and natural gas all get traded on commodities exchanges with little regard for borders. Natural gas is a partial exception, because it's hard to transport and the government restricts exports, but it's not different in principle.

Given those considerations, could Corbett mean what he said literally? Does he envision a Pennsylvania in which all or most of our energy comes from within our borders?

So I called the governor's office. Staffers there directed me to Patrick Henderson, Corbett's energy executive.

What Corbett means, Henderson said, is that Pennsylvania is becoming a net energy exporter and a linchpin in U.S. or North American energy independence.

The state has been a net electricity exporter for decades, he said, and the Marcellus Shale has led to an extraordinary reversal in the natural-gas market. Six years ago, Pennsylvania imported 75 percent of the gas it used; today, it is a net exporter, with output growing by leaps and bounds, he said.

Henderson agreed that Pennsylvania doesn't have much in the way of crude oil. But the Bakken Shale in North Dakota does, and that's part of the mix, he said.

"We don't need to be energy independent from North Dakota," he said.

I asked him about renewables, and he said they factor in as well. Henderson's team is working on a comprehensive energy plan for Pennsylvania that takes account of all resources, including renewables, he said.

The rationale for energy independence, he said, is reducing America's reliance on places like the Middle East and its unstable, often unfriendly political regimes.

It's hard to argue with that. And the notion of Pennsylvania as part of a more self-reliant North America makes sense, unlike the notion of Pennsylvania as an island unto itself.

It's a pity there isn't a phrase as short and punchy as "energy independent" that would convey the more nuanced impression that Henderson sketched for me. Saying Pennsylvania will become "a major natural gas exporter and self-reliant in energy in many respects, but not shut off from world markets, and yes, we'll need oil, but we'll be able to source it domestically" doesn't have the same zing.

But if you were curious, when Corbett says "energy independent," that's roughly what he means.

• • •

The world is hitting an unpleasant milestone: Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have reached 400 parts per million, their highest levels in at least 800,000 years.

The first graphic in this Wonkblog article shows the steady sawtooth-pattern rise in CO2 levels since 1960. The accompanying article explains how little time the planet has to avoid 450 ppm, a threshold once considered a good upper limit to aim for. Chances are we'll sail far past that.

Climate patterns are highly variable from year to year and decade to decade, masking overall trends to some extent and giving cover to would-be denialists. By contrast, the steady march of the underlying cause of warming ­— and it's worth recalling that the basic mechanism of the greenhouse effect has been settled science since the 19th century — is about as undeniable as trends get.

Tim Stuhldreher covers banking, finance, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at tims@centralpennbusiness.com. You can also follow him on Twitter, @timstuhldreher.

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