Natural-gas wells on public land in Wyoming.
Courtesy EcoFlight and SkyTruth Natural-gas wells on public land in Wyoming.

When I opened my Sunday paper a few weeks ago, the headline “U.S. inches toward energy independence” caught my eye.

Syndicated from The New York TimesNews Service, the article reported on the increase in domestic oil and natural gas production (despite political sound bites and public perception to the contrary) and a decrease in gasoline demand thanks to the recession, high gas prices, more fuel-efficient vehicles, and fewer miles driven.

Good news, right? Not if you’re a fan of the United States weaning itself from fossil fuels altogether (not just imports), reducing its carbon footprint from its extraction, production, and use, and fostering alternative energy technologies that are far less intrusive on the environment.

The real story is how the United States is boosting its domestic production, namely by using “new technologies”—specifically horizontal fracking, drilling now-warmer Arctic seas, and tapping oil sands—to get at so-called “extreme” oil and liquid gas stores that have been traditionally tough to extract.

Vertical fracking has been around for decades, but the shallow, horizontal version is far newer. It reportedly costs less per barrel to extract compared with offshore Arctic drilling (a sadly ironic by-product of global warming) and about the same as oil sands extraction.

But, it also arguably has drawn the most controversy for its potential environmental impact on ground water (per the toxins used in the process, which EPA deems safe) and the tremendous use of water needed to hydro-blast shale that holds the oil and liquid gas.

The lone silver lining in the Times article and a subsequent cover story in the April 9 edition of TIME Magazine, among others, is that neither the decline of imported oil and natural gas liquids (from a record-high 60% in 2005 to 45% of U.S. consumption in 2011, forecast to decline to 38% by 2022, according to the DOE), nor the 6% to 12% decline in gasoline use since 2007, is likely to have much effect on lowering prices at the pump.

That’s because of global economics of oil and liquid gas supply and demand; as use declines in North America and Europe, demand increases elsewhere, namely China, India, and developing nations. That dynamic maintains crude oil prices above $100 a barrel, a price the DOE does not expect to dip into double-digits as far out at 2025, at least.

That hard fact will hopefully turn attention back to reducing gas and oil consumption (and emissions), and not just by boosting MPG ratings. “It is equally important to design neighborhoods, districts, and cities that encourage low-carbon transportation behaviors,” says Francesca Desmarais of Architecture 2030, the Energy and Carbon co-chair for Vision 2020.

Her organization’s 2030 Districts and 2030 Challenge for Planning initiatives, for instance, aim for a 50% reduction in vehicle miles traveled by leveraging various public and shared transportation strategies and encouraging more walkable and bicycle-friendly communities. “If we can achieve significant reductions in VMT, then we can dramatically reduce our oil consumption, which is great news for the planet and healthy lifestyles.”