In truth, however, we don't yet know the real nature of this impending energy revolution. Natural gas prices are still too low to warrant profitable drilling in some areas. The environmental impact of widespread fracking -- the controversial water-intensive process of using pressurized fluid to release natural gas -- in different geological settings remains a mystery. Many regulatory decisions that will affect the growth of U.S. shale gas and oil will be made at the state level or by municipalities whose only "regulatory" option is an outright ban, and the resulting patchwork of rules may produce roadblocks to expansion and achieving necessary economies of scale. We are not sure of the economics of some of these new wells, when they might be depleted, and how that uncertainty might constrain the infrastructure investment needed to bring these resources to market. The whole boom could happen more slowly, or falter more widely, than expected. It's probably going to do a lot of good for a lot of people and for the U.S. economy as a whole, but it is unlikely to unfold without twists, setbacks, and disappointments.
Nor should the shale boom in America, even if it produces growth, be seen as a get-out-of-jail-free card for politicians. Tax revenues might go up, but nowhere nearly enough to address the $16 trillion federal debt plus the perhaps $87 trillion in unfunded retiree health-care liabilities the country faces. We may see growth associated with energy, but the United States will not be competitive without also fixing what's broken in the other drivers of long-term prosperity, such as education and infrastructure. America may be able to pivot away from the Middle East -- Lord knows it should -- but energy markets are global, and upsets in that region will still have big consequences. Not to mention that instability in the region will still produce security risks and threats to U.S. citizens, no matter where the country gets its energy from.
Shale gas will also seemingly give our beloved politicos a pass on one of their greatest failures: stopping climate change. By making available large supplies of a fuel that is comparatively cleaner than oil or coal, shale-gas drilling should lead to lower emissions as the United States converts -- hopefully with some speed, focus, and purposefulness -- its power plants from coal to gas. It could produce benefits as the country moves to bigger fleets of natural gas vehicles. But these resources should not be seen as manna from the heavens. For one thing, shale oil creates serious carbon emissions. For another, using more gas won't slow emissions sufficiently in the United States or worldwide.
Each new gas field discovered in America is as rich in promise as it is in hydrocarbons. But if the country allows the potential benefits to dazzle or delude -- if it lets them lull the country into complacency about the other major challenges it faces -- we could find them providing not so much a shot of energy to U.S. growth as a shot of morphine to America's body politic, hiding the pain and clouding its vision as to what is truly necessary to take advantage of this potentially great moment in American history.