The United States produced more energy than it is consumed in 2019, marking a major milestone in the nation’s efforts to become dominant in the world’s energy mix. Data from the Energy Information Administration indicates that natural gas played a key role in reaching this milestone.
Living in the modern world is energy-intensive. In just the past 70 years, (and frankly since the beginning of documented human history), total energy consumption in the United States more than doubled as a medley of societal changes and countless technological advancements increased demand at a global scale. From the 1940s until 1960, production typically matched or was slightly higher than consumption. However, after 1960, that trend began to change, with consumption outpacing domestic energy production, reaching imbalances of nearly 30 quadrillion British thermal units (quads) at the turn of the millennia. Now, data from the EIA has shown that production is passing consumption, potentially catalyzing a new era in American energy.
According to the EIA’s figures, the United States produced 101.0 quads and consumed 100.2 quads of energy in 2019. Though only slightly higher, this switch indicates larger changes within the domestic energy landscape. Historically, domestic energy production was led by coal, with other sources, primarily natural gas, which was imported from natural gas-producing nations, supplementing as needed. The shale boom that began in 2008 changed this dynamic as the US began extracting an abundance of natural gas that not only satisfied domestic demand but also could be exported to foreign markets.
Data shows that, though increasing since 1960, production was not set to exceed consumption for some time. That is, until 2015, when production jumped, changing the trajectory. When analyzing production by source, there is a clear inverse relationship between coal and natural gas that begins around 2010, with coal beginning to steeply drop off and natural gas rising as the leading domestic energy source.
Natural gas grew quickly as the dominant source as hydraulic fracturing improved efficiencies in extraction, with 34.9 quads of gas being produced in 2018, eclipsing even the most productive years for coal by tens of quads. When analyzing consumption, petroleum (e.g. gasoline) is by far the most consumed energy source in the US, but is primarily used in the transportation sector with only 1 percent used for electrical power generation. If petroleum is removed from the equation, it is clear that natural gas is the most-consumed energy source in the nation by a large margin, outpacing its closest competitor, coal, by approximately 30 quads.
This new reality only further illuminates the opportunity for natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal-fired electricity generation. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly caused issues for the industry though, as demand for gas fell further during the shutdown and already low prices created by the large supply continued.
Additionally, the push for renewable energy to rise as our main source of energy production has moved many politicians to push for renewable energy investment, and a phasing out of fossil fuels like natural gas. However, until renewables have the technological capacity to supply energy consistently, natural gas will act as a bridge, supplying our energy demands, while reducing emissions compared to other fuels such as coal.