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There’s Almost No Way Energy Policy Can Satisfy Everyone

The U.S. Energy Information Administration released its 2017 Annual Energy Outlook on Thursday. The report models possible futures for energy-related statistics over the next 34 years — including the price of wind power, the amount of energy used by an office building, and the total amount of energy consumed in the United States. Those projections are based on scenarios — take a variable, like the price of oil, and see how changes to that variable might change the future. One of the big findings this year: Most of the projection scenarios say the U.S. is poised to become a net energy exporter rather than a net energy importer — meaning we’d be selling other people more oil and gas than we buy.

Projections like this should probably not be taken as reliable predictions of the future. There are just too many things they have no way of knowing (Annual Energy Outlook reports published in the early 2000s, for instance, didn’t know about the coming shale boom). But the chart in the EIA report does reveal a fact that will be important for the incoming presidential administration: When it comes to energy, there’s almost no way to make everybody happy. And I’m not just talking about obvious conflicts between the renewable energy industry and the fossil fuel industry.

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Consider, for example, the needs of the petrochemical industry versus the petroleum industry. Natural gas is the feedstock for making a wide variety of chemical products — such as plastics and fertilizer. Companies like Dow and DuPont want cheap natural gas, said Deborah Stine, professor of practice, engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. So they’ve been fighting against natural gas exports — which would raise the price of gas here at home — since the shale gas boom began, she said. The oil and gas industry likes the idea of selling its wares abroad, which would reduce the supply of natural gas available in U.S. markets, thus driving up prices and revenues. When an oil executive looks at the EIA’s projections, he’s rooting for the scenarios that show high prices and rising exports. But those same scenarios are bad news for chemical executives — they’re rooting for the ones that show low natural-gas prices.

Conflicts like this have significant political implications, Stine said, “because looking from a Trump standpoint, you say you’ll increase manufacturing jobs in places like Michigan, which is where Dow is based. But then you’re also saying there should be free oil and gas exportation.” The EIA report demonstrates how those two promises don’t necessarily work hand-in-hand.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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