Why I Still Oppose Offshore Drilling

My Aug. 5 article about offshore drilling elicited thoughtful replies from readers, as is usual around here. This site doesn’t attract much of the ruck crushed around popular message boards, for which I’m grateful.

Rob found in Newt Gingrich’s Winning The Future newsletter “a study by two economists that argues that drilling in ANWR would produce an immediate drop in oil prices even if the oil did not enter refineries for several years. Interestingly, this study was rejected for publication in The Energy Journal, not because they disagreed with the findings, but because they considered the study’s conclusion so obvious that it was not worth publishing!”

Ric sent along the results of the first U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) resource estimate for the area in Alaska north of the Arctic Circle. From Congressman John Culberson’s (R-TX) website in reference to the study:

According the USGS, the area north of the Arctic Circle has an estimated 90 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil, 1,670 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of technically recoverable natural gas liquids in 25 geologically defined areas thought to have potential for petroleum.

These resources account for about 22 percent of the undiscovered, technically recoverable resources in the world. The Arctic accounts for about 13 percent of the undiscovered oil, 30 percent of the undiscovered natural gas, and 20 percent of the undiscovered natural gas liquids in the world. About 84 percent of the estimated resources are expected to occur offshore.

We know the resources are there and we know we have technology available today to recover the oil in an environmentally-responsible manner. Congress needs to act now to bring relief to American families. If our country is ever to be energy self-sufficient, we must be able to access our own energy resources.

Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund has countered such sentiment with an ad campaign decrying offshore drilling for oil. It tells visitors to its website that they should tell Congress they won’t buy the lie: “The Bush Administration wants Americans to believe that drilling in the Arctic Refuge and off our coastlines will ease our pain at the gas pump. In reality, it would lower gas prices by mere pennies — and that would be 20 years from now!”

Here’s the pre-written letter that the NRDC Action Fund suggests sending to congresspeople and senators:

I am not buying the lie, promoted by President Bush, that sacrificing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and America’s coastal waters to oil drilling would make a real difference in gas prices — either today or twenty years from today! I oppose any legislation that would remove the ban on oil development in these treasured places.

With just three percent of the world’s oil reserves, our nation simply doesn’t have enough oil to impact the global market or drill our way to lower prices at the pump. Putting rigs in the Arctic Refuge and off our spectacular coastlines would certainly boost oil company profits, but it would impoverish our natural heritage and deepen our already destructive dependence on oil.

We deserve real solutions to high energy prices — not gimmicks and land grabs. Please support legislation that will help our nation kick the oil habit and usher in a cleaner, greener energy future. I urge you to promote measures that will make our vehicles far more fuel efficient, put millions of plug-in hybrids on the road and connect them to a cleaner electric grid, dramatically boost our reliance on renewables like wind and solar, and limit America’s global warming pollution in order to spur innovation in energy technologies.

President Bush’s “Drill It All” policies and his rejection of cleaner alternatives have gotten us into this mess. They will not get us out. Please take bold action that will move America beyond oil and into a more sustainable energy future.

The fund’s “Elixir” ad ran in The Washington Post. You can see it exactly as it ran here. Below is the main text:

With our economy sinking and oil prices soaring, George Bush is offering snake oil: a plan to sacrifice more of our coasts to oil drilling on the chance it will produce a few weeks’ worth of oil and reduce gas prices by a few pennies a gallon…in 2028. Imagine America forever tethered to Bush’s failed energy policy. It’s like giving him five more terms.

It’s a cruel Shell game. And BP game. And ExxonMobil game. Over the past five years, the number of domestic drilling permits has nearly doubled. But because of rising worldwide demand, oil prices have skyrocketed. More drilling off our coasts is not the answer. Once destroyed they can never be replaced. The only winners will be the oil companies.

Want gas at $1 a gallon? America needs a bold new approach to energy, from more fuel efficient vehicles to plug-in hybrids and electric cars. A cleaner electric grid powered by renewables. Existing technologies could have us driving at the equivalent of a buck a gallon for gas!

Tell your Representative and Senators to stop the giveaway of our coasts. Tell them you won’t stand for billions more for oil companies — and snake oil for the rest of us.

The Washington Post itself responded to the NRDC Action Fund ad in a nice editorial yesterday. It said that environmentalists made some excellent points in the debate over whether the U.S. should drill off its shores. It agreed that “the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with its varied and sensitive ecosystems, should be preserved. . . . That pristine area must remain off-limits.”

However, it challenged “three ‘truths’ masquerading as fact among drilling opponents” in a quick list:

  • Drilling is pointless because the United States has only 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves. This refers only to known oil reserves, and most of our estimates are old and were made with outdated equipment. “In short, there could be much more oil under the sea than previously known.”

  • The oil companies aren’t using the leases they already have. This one is just a myth. Oil companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars exploring and constructing infrastructure to bring oil to market. Just because a lease is not yet producing the 130,000 barrels of oil a day to be deemed “active” doesn’t mean it’s being sat upon. “With oil prices still above $100 a barrel, that charge never made sense.”

  • Drilling is environmentally dangerous. Safety measures are pretty good these days. According to the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, “between 1993 and 2007, there were 651 spills of all sizes at OCS facilities (in federal waters three miles or more offshore) that released 47,800 barrels of oil. With 7.5 billion barrels of oil produced in that time, that equates to 1 barrel of oil spilled per 156,900 barrels produced. That’s not to minimize the danger. But no form of energy is perfect or without trade-offs. Besides, if it is acceptable to drill in the Ca
    spian Sea and in developing countries such as Nigeria where environmental concerns are equally important, it’s hard to explain why the United States should rule out drilling off its own coasts.”

The editorial concludes:

No, the United States cannot drill its way to energy independence. But with the roaring economies of China and India gobbling up oil in the two countries’ latter-day industrial revolutions, the United States can no longer afford to turn its back on finding all the sources of fuel necessary to maintain its economy and its standard of living. What’s required is a long-term, comprehensive plan that includes wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels and nuclear — and that acknowledges that oil and gas will be instrumental to the U.S. economy for many years to come.

In politics, we hear the word “change” bandied about and cheered for frequently. People love change, it seems, but when it comes to the actual moment of change, they shrink back.

I would say that it is not acceptable to drill in the Caspian Sea and off developing countries such as Nigeria. The environmental damage caused by oil is well documented, not just from the getting it but also from the using it. Any child who’s ridden in a car behind a smoke-spewing truck can testify to the polluting characteristics of internal combustion engines.

The very reason we have a gasoline price crisis and an environmental crisis is that the world is dependent on oil. How can the right answer to the problem be a way to extend the dependence?

It doesn’t really matter how much oil is available under ANWR or other places within U.S. borders because:

  • if it’s too little, it’s not worth it, and,
  • if it’s a lot, we’ll just extend the deleterious carbon age that much longer.

Everybody agrees that massive changes are necessary, but almost nobody is willing to take the massive steps. If government was bold enough to say simply “no more oil supplies” it would force the market to change to a new energy source ASAP. This is a part of free markets that is known to not work well. Regulation is needed because of a generational gap that enables companies to keep promoting harmful products well past the lifespan of those who protest them along the way.

Think about it. Can you even remember the environmental protests that occurred in 1969 when 80,000 barrels of oil from an offshore well washed up on the beaches of Santa Barbara? Probably not. People born now see that they have no choices when it comes to getting in a car for transportation because the choices were made decades ago — and the system is locked down. Ripping it up from the bolts will not be a smooth process. It’s necessary, though. If left to their own, oil companies will keep selling oil to the last barrel even as the world dies while superior technologies wait on the sidelines, ready to go.

Our collective foot has to be put down at some point.

We can’t say we want change, say that oil is bad, lament the loss of wildlife and fresh air, moan about high gas prices, and then choose more of the same as the solution.

No more of the same, is the solution. Enough is enough, is the solution. We’ve tried your way for too many decades already and we want to move on, is the solution.

Al Gore’s speech about getting beyond oil within ten years was a lot better than the excerpts propped up and attacked in the media. Here are some highlights:

We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that’s got to change.

The answer is to end our reliance on carbon-based fuels.

What if we could use fuels that are not expensive, don’t cause pollution and are abundantly available right here at home?

We have such fuels. Scientists have confirmed that enough solar energy falls on the surface of the earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 percent of the entire world’s energy needs for a full year. Tapping just a small portion of this solar energy could provide all of the electricity America uses.

And enough wind power blows through the Midwest corridor every day to also meet 100 percent of US electricity demand. Geothermal energy, similarly, is capable of providing enormous supplies of electricity for America.

The quickest, cheapest and best way to start using all this renewable energy is in the production of electricity. In fact, we can start right now using solar power, wind power and geothermal power to make electricity for our homes and businesses.

But to make this exciting potential a reality, and truly solve our nation’s problems, we need a new start.

That’s why I’m proposing today a strategic initiative designed to free us from the crises that are holding us down and to regain control of our own destiny. It’s not the only thing we need to do. But this strategic challenge is the lynchpin of a bold new strategy needed to re-power America.

Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.

A few years ago, it would not have been possible to issue such a challenge. But here’s what’s changed: the sharp cost reductions now beginning to take place in solar, wind, and geothermal power – coupled with the recent dramatic price increases for oil and coal – have radically changed the economics of energy.

When I first went to Congress 32 years ago, I listened to experts testify that if oil ever got to $35 a barrel, then renewable sources of energy would become competitive. Well, today, the price of oil is over $135 per barrel. And sure enough, billions of dollars of new investment are flowing into the development of concentrated solar thermal, photovoltaics, windmills, geothermal plants, and a variety of ingenious new ways to improve our efficiency and conserve presently wasted energy.

And as the demand for renewable energy grows, the costs will continue to fall. Let me give you one revealing example: the price of the specialized silicon used to make solar cells was recently as high as $300 per kilogram. But the newest contracts have prices as low as $50 a kilogram.

You know, the same thing happened with computer chips – also made out of silicon. The price paid for the same performance came down by 50 percent every 18 months – year after year, and that’s what’s happened for 40 years in a row.

To those who say the costs are still too high: I ask them to consider whether the costs of oil and coal will ever stop increasing if we keep relying on quickly depleting energy sources to feed a rapidly growing demand all around the world. When demand for oil and coal increases, their price goes up. When demand for solar cells increases, the price often comes down.

When we send money to foreign countries to buy nearly 70 percent of the oil we use every day, they build new skyscrapers and we lose jobs. When we spend that money building solar arrays and windmills, we build competitive industries and gain jobs here at home.

To those who say 10 years is not enough time, I respectfully ask them to consider what the world’s scientists are telling us about the risks we face if we don’t act in 10 years. The leading experts predict that we have less than 10 years to make dramatic changes in our global warming pollution lest we lose our ability to ever recover from this environmental crisis. When the use of oil and coal goes up, pollution goes up. When the use of solar, wind and geothermal increases, pollution comes down.

When President John F. Kennedy challenged our nation to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely in 10 years, many people doubted we could accomplish that goal. But 8 years and 2 months later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon.

Of c
ourse the greatest obstacle to meeting the challenge of 100 percent renewable electricity in 10 years may be the deep dysfunction of our politics and our self-governing system as it exists today. In recent years, our politics has tended toward incremental proposals made up of small policies designed to avoid offending special interests, alternating with occasional baby steps in the right direction. Our democracy has become sclerotic at a time when these crises require boldness.

It is only a truly dysfunctional system that would buy into the perverse logic that the short-term answer to high gasoline prices is drilling for more oil ten years from now.

Am I the only one who finds it strange that our government so often adopts a so-called solution that has absolutely nothing to do with the problem it is supposed to address? When people rightly complain about higher gasoline prices, we propose to give more money to the oil companies and pretend that they’re going to bring gasoline prices down. It will do nothing of the sort, and everyone knows it. If we keep going back to the same policies that have never ever worked in the past and have served only to produce the highest gasoline prices in history alongside the greatest oil company profits in history, nobody should be surprised if we get the same result over and over again. But the Congress may be poised to move in that direction anyway because some of them are being stampeded by lobbyists for special interests that know how to make the system work for them instead of the American people.

If you want to know the truth about gasoline prices, here it is: the exploding demand for oil, especially in places like China, is overwhelming the rate of new discoveries by so much that oil prices are almost certain to continue upward over time no matter what the oil companies promise. And politicians cannot bring gasoline prices down in the short term.

However, there actually is one extremely effective way to bring the costs of driving a car way down within a few short years. The way to bring gas prices down is to end our dependence on oil and use the renewable sources that can give us the equivalent of $1 per gallon gasoline.

Our entire civilization depends upon us now embarking on a new journey of exploration and discovery. Our success depends on our willingness as a people to undertake this journey and to complete it within 10 years. Once again, we have an opportunity to take a giant leap for humankind.

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