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Experts at NMSU conference see bright future

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CATLETT: Leadoff speaker at conference

LAS CRUCES – From fracking to China, speakers at the Domenici Public Policy Conference here Wednesday offered expert insights into the future.

“Nobody knows the future. All we can do is imagine,” said Lowell Catlett, professor and dean at New Mexico State University, which puts on the annual conference through its Domenici Institute.

But even Catlett, in an often humorous presentation leading off the conference that continues today, marveled at changes already seen.

With North America now seeing energy independence within reach, Catlett recalled being told as a student in the 1960s: “There will be no gasoline in 1980.”

He spoke of trying to wade through dense college chemistry texts and then whipping out a smartphone: “I hit a hyperlink and a world-class professor comes up.”

China expert Joshua Cooper Ramo, a New Mexico native who now works with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s international consulting firm, described the “incredible energy” in Beijing as China becomes a giant player in the global economy.

But he said China’s growth, and its “intent to establish a major position in the world” pose challenges for the U.S. if the U.S. wants to remain a global heavyweight.

“This is the nation that has a view of itself as a great power,” Ramo said, referring to China.

The former Time magazine editor, son of Albuquerque cardiologist Barry Ramo and lawyer Roberta Cooper Ramo, suggested the “unipolar period of U.S. dominance” has dissipated since the Cold War.

Even global equations of military might have changed, Ramo said. “The cost to attack has gone down,” he said. “The cost to defend has gone up.”

But things are bright at home on at least one score, speaker after speaker said: The U.S. is on the brink of energy independence, with improved horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies leading to booms in domestic gas and oil production.

Shale gas, in particular, “is a very large resource, and the technology and the economy are there to make it work,” said Guy Caruso, former administrator of the U.S. Energy Information Administration, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Caruso called it the “shale gas revolution” and said at least 20 states, including New Mexico, are participating in the booms enabled by horizontal drilling and fracking.

Marianne Walck, director of the Geoscience, Climate and Consequence Effects Center at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, said more than 300 wells have been drilled in New Mexico using the improved technology.

Key parts of that technology were developed at Sandia with Department of Energy funding, she and others said.

Several speakers thanked former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who retired in 2009, for his leading role in obtaining federal dollars for science and technology research at Sandia and Los Alamos labs.

Domenici, who opened the conference Wednesday along with NMSU President and Domenici Institute head Garrey Carruthers, said the move toward energy independence is a huge gain for the nation.

“The U.S. has spent $6 trillion on foreign oil,” Domenici said. “That’s the greatest transfer of wealth in mankind’s history from one country to another.”

Although speakers said scientists and the public still need more data to allay all concerns about fracking – concerns related to emissions, water usage and water quality – there was little suggestion of environmental peril from Wednesday’s group.

“We know hydraulic fracking can be done safely,” said former U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Norm Warpinski, a technology fellow with a Halliburton company, was blunt in his comments on some public concerns about fracking.

Fracking fluids “come nowhere close to the aquifers,” he said. And there is “nothing to show we’re going to get earthquakes.”

Students were allowed time to question each speaker Wednesday.

The conference is being webcast. The agenda and presentations are archived at www.domenici.nmsu.edu.

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