WASHINGTON -- One could use countless words to describe 2012, but "inconsequential" would not be one of them. Indeed, the year that we'll sing Auld Lang Syne to was one of historic consequence: a billion-dollar presidential election, a superstorm for the ages, a relentless drought, numbing and tragic mass shootings.
As with every new year, the one that starts Tuesday begins on a blank canvas. There will be no national elections in 2013, no Olympics. Two major anniversaries stand out: President John Kennedy was slain 50 years past. That same year, Martin Luther King delivered his "I have a dream" speech.
The unexpected will surely change our world, or perhaps simply rock it. Who predicted the Beatles in 1964? The Apple computer in 1977? Or the financial industry collapse in 2007? As Yogi Berra didn't say, but often gets credit for, "It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future."
Yet 2013's significant events will have roots in 2012. The "fiscal cliff" that arrives at midnight Monday was the result of a law passed in August. President Obama and Congress agreed to automatic tax hikes and spending cuts if a budget deal couldn't be worked out. The election result of November - same president, same Congress - has to this point resulted in deadlock
Economist Ken Simonson predicts modest economic and job growth in 2013 - similar to last year's pace - if a fiscal cliff disaster is avoided. He says the economy reminds him of the Dr. Seuss story, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. Every time Bartholomew removes his hat for the king, another one appears beneath it. In other words, each month looks a lot like the last one.
Here is USA TODAY's look at five important issues to watch in 2013:
1. Harnessing energy
The nation's energy boom shows no signs of slowing in 2013, and that's great news for consumers, job-seekers and most businesses.
Residential electricity costs will fall 2.2% next year after adjusting for inflation, predicts the Energy Information Administration. Already low natural gas prices for consumers will be flat, the EIA forecasts.
Gasoline prices will drop more than 5% next year and rise less than inflation for the next decade, the EIA estimates. Perhaps the angst of $5-a-gallon gasoline will have to wait.
The techniques of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing - fracking - have made it possible to retrieve oil and natural gas that is lightly spread underground over much of the USA. Previously, oil companies focused on finding reservoirs rich with fossil fuels.
"Today's drilling is a manufacturing process. It's not about discovery," says Lucian Pugliaresi, president of the Energy Policy Research Foundation. "Small advances in technology result in large increases in reserves."
The USA should remain the unchallenged leader in tapping energy reserves in non-traditional ways in 2013 and beyond because of its technological leadership, he says.
U.S. oil production is up 24% since 2006 to the highest level since the Alaska pipeline's heyday in 1996. Natural gas production is up 27% since 2006 to its highest level since the EIA started keeping track in 1973.
This energy boom will help automakers and other energy-intensive manufacturers remain competitive worldwide in 2013.
Dozens of new power plants are being built to take advantage of cheap natural gas and to replace heavily polluting coal plants. Example: An $800 million natural gas power plant, nearing approval in western Pennsylvania, will take more than two years to build and employ 500 construction workers.
The Tennessee Valley Authority opened an $800 million natural gas plant in April so it could phase out two coal-fired power plants ordered closed because of pollution.
The thorniest question next year might be: What to do with so much energy? Key decisions in 2013:
*Keystone pipeline. President Obama will decide in the next few months whether to build the Keystone XL Pipeline to move oil from Canada and North Dakota to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
*Liquid natural gas. Obama also must determine in 2013 whether oil companies can export liquid natural gas to Asia, where it sells for more, or keep it at home so U.S. manufacturers enjoy bargain prices.
*Environmental rules. The Environmental Protection Agency will issue an initial report on fracking soon, taking comments in 2013 and releasing a final report in 2014. The EPA's report will be largely advisory. States are the primary regulators of oil and gas drilling.
*Fracking. The Bureau of Land Management, which manages resources on federal lands such as national forests, could finalize rules on fracking on federal lands.
2. Health care law ramps up
The Affordable Care Act's big health care expansion is still a year away, but the steps taken in 2013 will determine how well the controversial law works.
This year's make-or-break deadline is Oct. 1. That's when health insurance exchanges must be launched in all 50 states - a revolution in how medical insurance is chosen. These exchanges will let consumers shop online for health insurance policies, similar to an amazon.com or travelocity.com for health insurance. Policies take effect on New Year's Day in 2014.
Federal and state governments will bring health insurance to as many as 30 million uninsured people. Some parts of the law already have taken effect. But the most sweeping part of it - universal health care - will depend on a huge effort in 2013 to set rules, write computer programs, win cooperation from states, recruit insurers and find the uninsured. Key decisions to watch this year:
*Medicaid. States must decide whether to join the Medicaid expansion, a decision that has no clear deadline. Medicaid, the health program for the poor, will expand to cover those with the lowest incomes - about $32,000 or less for a family of four.
*Health care exchanges. States must decide whether to run the exchanges themselves, let the federal government do it or try a federal-state partnership. The last deadline is in February, but states can change their mind. Federal subsidies will help people who have higher incomes - up to about $92,000 for a family of four - buy insurance on the new exchanges.
Higher taxes to fund the law will take effect in 2013, including:
*A new 2.3% tax on medical devices such as pacemakers and ultrasound equipment.
*An additional 0.9% Medicare tax on wages above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for married couples. The current tax is 1.45% for all incomes.
*An additional 3.8% tax on capital gains, dividends and interest on income above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for married couples.
Will the exchanges be ready Oct. 1? Dan Mendelson, chief executive of Avalere Health, thinks so. "The bureaucracy will rise to the challenge because the risk and importance to the president is so great."
3. Relentless drought grinds on
Gary Meitl, 53, raises cattle in Dresden, Kan. He's finishing up a year of withering drought, and he's not sure he can take another one.
Yet that's what's likely to happen.
The nation's worst drought in decades shows no signs of subsiding in 2013. The dryness, affecting 42 of 50 states, may have cost the USA as much as $100 billion in 2012, even more than Superstorm Sandy.
If it continues as forecast, the drought is expected to cause additional billions of dollars in losses for Midwest farmers and shipping along the Mississippi River, raise food prices and heighten concerns about water shortages in the arid West.
On his ranch, Meitl sold more calves than usual as soon as they were weaned. He also was forced to buy feed for his cows; normally they would survive on grass until early February. If conditions remain dry through March and April, Meitl says, he'll have to start selling cows.
And if you think the worst is behind us, think again.
Larry Janssen, a professor of agricultural economics at South Dakota State University, says the next year of drought could be even more damaging: "The big concern is that we've largely exhausted our subsoil moisture reserves going into the spring."
Unless that moisture is replenished, corn, soybeans and other crops will be affected again next year, Janssen says. Because some farmers have had to cull their cattle and hogs, he says it will take time to rebuild breeding stock and dairy herds. Those are the ingredients for higher food prices.
For a massive portion of the nation - almost every state west of the Mississippi - drought is forecast to continue throughout the winter, according to long-range forecasts from the Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Md.
This drought rivals the 1988 and 1950s droughts but thankfully is not as severe as the Dust Bowl that gutted agriculture and tormented millions of people in the 1930s.
4. Housing gains strength
The home fires are burning brighter. Housing's comeback is still young, but unlike recent years, the industry is feeding the economic recovery instead of starving it.
Home prices are up 4.3% for the 12 months ending in October, the Standard & Poor's Case-Shiller index shows. November's existing home sales hit their highest level in three years. Foreclosure starts that month were the lowest in almost six years, RealtyTrac says.
Forecasters are more upbeat, too. Home prices will rise 3.1% next year, says a panel of 100 economists and real estate experts recently surveyed by market watcher Zillow. In September, they'd predicted a 2.4% rise for next year.
A healthy housing industry is vital to the economy because it's an engine of job creation and spending in construction, building materials, remodeling and other activities.
Still, big challenges remain.
New home sales, up nearly 20% this year from 2011's record low, aren't likely to reach normal levels until 2015, says economist Patrick Newport of IHS Global Insight.
Even with increases, home prices are down 30% from their 2006 peak. More than 10 million homeowners still owe more on their mortgages than their homes were worth, CoreLogic says.
If the nation topples over the fiscal cliff, and recession returns, home buyer optimism will probably slide with the economy. There's also concern that interest rates, driven to historic lows by Federal Reserve policy, can goose sales only so much. The rest will depend on job growth, which has been slower than in past recoveries.
Even so, barring big economic shocks, the housing sector is poised to continue strengthening next year. Things "will be better than this year, but it still won't be a strong housing market," Newport says.
5. Overcoming Sandy's wrath
Billy Major's FunTown Pier amusement park, active in Seaside Heights, N.J., since 1980, lies in ruins, more than two months after Superstorm Sandy's assault on the Jersey shore.
Major doesn't know whether he can bring back the boardwalk business at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Everything depends on how much his insurance company pays.
One thing's certain as he thinks about the collapsed boardwalk, mangled rides and a teetering Ferris wheel: "No matter what, we have to clean it up."
Major is one of thousands of homeowners and business owners in New Jersey, New York and other states still coming to terms with Sandy. They're hoping 2013 will see them finishing the job of clearing debris, rebuilding homes and businesses and restoring treasured beaches, even as this national tragedy becomes a regional recovery.
The Army Corps of Engineers and local agencies are still cataloging the hundreds of damaged and destroyed homes and other structures slated for demolition.
In part, numbers tell the story of the long slog that storm victims face. President Obama is asking Congress for $60.4 billion in federal money for storm relief.
Cleanup remains a monumental task. New Jersey alone must deal with more than 6.2 million cubic yards of debris - enough to fill the old Giants Stadium 2½ times.
Environmental crews are assessing how to remove debris - including entire houses - from wetlands, says Brandon Beach, spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In some barrier island communities isolated by washed out or impassable roads after the storm, cleanup is barely underway. In other cities, the first stages of curbside pickup have just given way to the second phase: demolishing and removing badly damaged buildings.
Yet as with many tragedies of this magnitude, stories of resilience and fortitude are what carried the region forward in the waning months of 2012 while inspiring people across the nation. Fundraisers to help the victims of Sandy steered millions of dollars to people who might have otherwise shivered through the holidays, and volunteers helped their fellow citizens with an urgency often reserved for family.
May 2013 usher in new hope and perhaps a sense of renewal for New Jersey, New York and the millions of lives upended by the storm.