Energy infrastructure underpins just about everything.
An overhead network of power lines keeps the lights on, the air conditioning on and the Wi-Fi connected. An underground network of pipes supplies stoves and ovens and allows gasoline to flow freely from the pumps. Energy in Wyoming is plentiful and predictable. Most people don’t really have to think about it.
Twenty years ago, after the events of September 11, 2001, which shattered Americans’ sense of security, this stable energy supply did not seem obvious. Suddenly it looked more like a vulnerability.
“Whether you’re talking about oil and gas or electricity, think of all the things you can’t do, that you used to do every day, without your electricity,” said Lynn Budd, director of Wyoming Office of Homeland. Security.
In the months following September 11, the immediate concern was physical assault. The energy infrastructure is visible. It is distributed practically everywhere. And transmission, including pipelines and power lines, is often concentrated in narrow passages to simplify complex authorization processes.
“We didn’t know if even our dams were safe,” said Steve Degenfelder, land manager for Kirkwood Oil and Gas. “If we are to be subjected to terrorism, putting all of our pipelines in one lane, does that put all of our eggs in one basket?” “
These perceived physical threats to infrastructure never materialized. But the collective sense of uncertainty spawned a national campaign for energy independence that has shaped the modern energy market and the distinct energy security landscape of today.
In the years following September 11, President George W. Bush embarked on an effort to regain control of the national energy market. The country already had a stable supply of coal: in 2001, it imported less than 2% of total coal consumed nationwide and exported twice as much. Bush was more concerned with oil.
The Energy Independence and Security Act 2007, which formalized Bush’s efforts to limit U.S. dependence on oil imports, marked a reversal from previous presidents’ efforts to lower prices by increasing international oil production.
“Energy is a weapon,” said Mark Doelger, president of B&H Geologists. “It is an economic weapon.
After September 11, the United States was no longer comfortable giving its political opponents that kind of influence. But he did not have the tools to immediately repudiate foreign oil. In 2001, the country was the second largest oil producer, after only Saudi Arabia. It fell to third place, behind Russia, in 2004.
National oil production has continued to climb under President Barack Obama, despite the implementation of more restrictive drilling policies than those of his predecessor. In the years since, Obama has claimed credit for the growth of the industry.
It was hydraulic fracturing, however, that in 2014 brought the United States to its current place at the top of the oil production rankings.
“It’s really more the economics of power generation than anything else,” said Shannon Anderson, staff lawyer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council. “This is the reason why we have created greater national energy security with oil and gas. It was technology and economics.
In 2019, the United States was still a net importer of oil, producing 19.27 million barrels per day and consuming 20.54 million, according to the Energy Information Administration. It exported 8.47 million barrels per day. Most 9.14 million barrels per day of international origin came from Canada and OPEC countries, including Saudi Arabia.
Amid the demand crash caused by the pandemic in 2020, the United States became a net exporter of oil for the first time since the mid-20th century. It imported 7.86 million barrels per day and exported 8.51 million barrels and consumed an average of 18.19 million barrels per day.
The fracking boom has also transformed the domestic natural gas market. After 2005, production skyrocketed. US imports of natural gas began to decline in 2007, and the country has remained a net exporter since 2016. In 2020, it produced 33.43 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or nearly 3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. more than he consumed.
“Energy independence, especially in oil and natural gas, has really come a long way,” Doelger said. “Great progress has been made in these areas. “
Two decades after September 11, despite changing regulations imposed by Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden, the United States regained considerable control over its oil and gas markets. But fossil fuels are no longer the only major players in the energy sector.
Technological advancements and the growing demand for low-carbon energy are driving a rapid transformation of the national energy landscape. Renewable energies, storage batteries and nuclear power are replacing coal, oil and natural gas. But the sources of generation necessary to mitigate the climate crisis also come with new challenges.
“We all know where we are today when it comes to energy security,” Doelger said. “Clearly, it’s compromised, because of our dependence on unstable countries – countries that don’t have our best interests at heart. “
The United States depends on China and Russia to supply the uranium used in its nuclear reactors, which provide 20% of the country’s total electricity, as good as rare earth elements required to manufacture wind turbines, solar panels and commercial batteries.
Although there are deposits of uranium and rare earths in the United States, both resources can be imported relatively cheaply and remain prohibitive to mine and process domestically.
American uranium production, which peaked in 1980, has practically ceased and its nuclear enrichment capacity – a necessary part of the refining process – is anything but nonexistent. Even uranium mined inside the country must be enriched outside its borders.
“We have the uranium resource,” Doelger said. “We have the rare earth resource. What we lack, I think, to some extent is public acceptance and the political will to develop our national resources.
To some extent, the factors hampering nuclear development are the reverse of the circumstances that currently extinguish coal. There is a market for nuclear power, but the country’s uranium is inaccessible; coal is plentiful, but demand is declining.
The demise of the coal market poses a unique threat to U.S. energy security, said Jason Begger, executive director of the Wyoming Integrated Test Center, a carbon capture research facility. As hurricanes, forest fires, heat waves and climate-driven ice storms cripple energy infrastructure across the country, cities and states face the limits of their power grids.
“When you see some of these extreme weather events,” he said, “where do they look? They turn to coal right away, because it is the best option. It really is the only option.
Wind and solar are inherently variable energy sources. As advances in battery technology make renewable energy increasingly reliable, today’s batteries still facing storage restrictions. Nuclear plant usually operate at full capacity and cannot scale to meet increased demand. And gas pipelines, which depend on electricity to transport gas to power plants, can suffer from major power outages.
This means that coal, the fuel most closely associated with climate change, is also the most reliable source of energy during natural disasters intensified by climate change.
“In a coal-fired power plant, your fuel supply is on-site, on-demand,” Begger said. “The weaknesses of coal are not operational. They are, I would say, more environmental and political.
In Wyoming, at least, alternative technologies still have time to mature. Rocky Mountain Power, the state’s largest utility, plans to withdraw its last coal-fired power plant from Wyoming in 2039. In the meantime, it intends to build wind, solar, battery storage, and nuclear power plants in the six-state lineup of its parent company.
For utilities, reliability is always a top priority. Now, 20 years after 9/11 sounded the alarm bells about attacks on physical infrastructure, a new concern is emerging: cyber attacks.
“It’s something we take very seriously,” said Tiffany Erickson, head of media relations for Rocky Mountain Power. “The security of our assets and the security of customer information are part of the day-to-day responsibilities of the company. “
In May, a ransomware cyberattack shut down the colonial pipeline, which supplies gasoline to the Southeast, until the company paid hackers nearly $ 5 million in bitcoin. Wyoming utilities, operators and other energy stakeholders are taking steps to protect themselves, from backing up company data to training employees so they don’t fall for phishing scams .
“I think for the state of Wyoming the biggest threat we have right now is cybersecurity,” said Budd of the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security. “Because it’s global. There are no borders. There is no distinction between whether you are in Wyoming, or California, or Europe.