By Tom Still

The United States is well on its way to becoming virtually energy independent in less than two decades, in no small part because “fracking” and other technologies are unlocking new supplies of oil and natural gas within our borders.

That’s great news for an economy that seems permanently stuck in neutral. However, it’s unnerving for those who believe prolonged reliance on fossil fuels will curb conservation, reduce innovation and accelerate potentially disastrous climate change.

Read this commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here.

Read this commentary in WTN News here.

The debate shouldn’t be framed as boom-or-bust. With careful planning, it should be possible to strike a balance between the short-term benefits of the nation’s oil-and-gas bonanza and the longer-term need to conserve and diversify. Most important, entrepreneurs and others in Wisconsin can help provide the answers.


It’s not news that hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” of underground shale formations with high-pressure jets of water, chemicals and sand has opened up supplies of oil and natural gas in places ranging from Pennsylvania to North Dakota.


What’s only now becoming clear, however, is how much of a game-changer those new supplies of energy will prove to be in a relatively short amount of time.


The International Energy Agency released a report late last month that concluded the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil producer by about 2017 and will become a net oil exporter by 2030. In the same report, the Paris-based IEA concluded the United States will surpass Russia as the world’s leading natural gas producer in 2015.


The agency, which has advised industrialized nations on energy issues since 1974, had previously predicted that Saudi Arabia would remain the world’s leading oil producer until 2035.


The implications for the economy are significant. Already, production increases are transforming communities and states linked to the boom. That includes mining of sand used in “fracking,” much of which is produced in Wisconsin. Inexpensive natural gas has already given U.S. manufacturers an edge over foreign competitors, and has opened up export possibilities for liquefied natural gas. More electric power plants are likely to be fueled by cheap natural gas, as well, thus displacing much dirtier coal.


Don’t expect, however, gasoline prices to drop because oil is a global commodity. Demand in China, India and other developing nations is soaring, and Middle Eastern oil diverted from American refineries will only wind up on tankers headed in another direction. The same holds for U.S. coal, which will head to China and Europe instead.


In short, the oil-and-gas boom is more of a respite than a permanent fix. Conservation and storage technologies must still be developed, alternative energy sources developed and innovative techniques employed to make sure the boom doesn’t cause more harm than good.


That’s where Wisconsin firms, researchers and institutions can help. Here are just a few examples:


AquaMost, a Madison-based company, has developed ways to clean the water used in hydraulic fracturing operations. It focuses on providing bacterial and polymer remediation for the oil and gas industry.

Idle Free Systems is a Watertown company that helps the trucking industry save fuel. It makes battery-powered equipment known as auxiliary power units that provide drivers of long-haul trucks with power inside their sleeper cab without idling.

Virent Energy is replacing crude oil with a wide variety of plant sugars that can be converted into fuel or chemicals for other renewable products, such as beverage bottles.

Wisconsin companies are growing producers of components used in the wind energy, which has doubled in the last four years in terms of generation. Wisconsin firms are also engaged in the solar energy, largely through production of solar panels.

Major companies such as Johnson Controls Inc. are leaders in energy storage and control system technologies. The company is partnering with U-Milwaukee and others to build advanced prototypes of next-generation lithium-ion chemistry cells that can be used to power vehicles.


Finally, Wisconsin researchers from many public and private universities have proven adept at developing ways to monitor climate change and explore ways to mitigate or even counteract its effects on the environment and people.


The oil-and-gas boom isn’t an excuse to stop innovating but an opportunity to do more. That can be done by more carefully exploiting the nation’s new-found advantage and by pointing the way to a more diversified energy future.