Once it becomes scarce enough, if we have not by then moved on to some other solution for our energy needs, it’s quite possible that we could see mankind destroy itself scrabbling over what’s left of it.
So that readers might know where I’m coming from, I wish to preface this posting with the following pronouncement: I am a fiscally conservative Democrat. This means that, while I have liberal leanings socially, I believe in balanced budgets, I believe in maintaining a strong national defense capa- bility, I believe in abiding by the rule of law, and I believe in protecting both the people and the environment from the ravages of corporate greed and in doing so with “measured”, reasonable restrictions on “free” markets.
I was watching MSNBC’s political host talk show, Hardball, with Chris Matthews one evening earlier this week. Chris was mediating (if that’s a good word for what he does) a discussion between an Obama supporter and a McCain supporter. I’m sorry, but I do not recall the names of the participants, one of whom, however, was a fireball of an outspoken lady on Republican policies (note that I do not use the term, conservative here as I believe the Republican Party has completely forgotten what it means to be conservative).
The discussion turned to energy policy, the rising price of gasoline, diesel and aviation fuels causing great consternation and economic impact for voters in America this year. Chris and the Obama supporter ganged-up on this lady over John McCain’s federal gas tax holiday proposal stating that no economist thinks that it is an idea worthy of serious debate, and certainly not a long-term solution to anything. In response, the lady very skillfully switched topics to that of drilling for oil in Alaska’s National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR). She spoke as if this would be a long-term solution, freeing us from our addiction to foreign oil, most of which now comes from Canada (19%), Mexico (15%), Saudi Arabia (11.5%), Nigeria (10.5%) and Venezuela (10.5%). These foreign imports amount to 66.5% of our total consumption of oil and are the biggest reason for our near trillion dollar annual trade deficit. But, typical of ANWR drilling proponents, she greatly overstated the facts, and I was disappointed that Chris and the other man didn’t counter her claims. Perhaps they didn’t know enough to do so — neither seemed to know that the presumptive Republian nominee had sided with most Democrats on this issue in the past.
We talked quite a bit about the current “energy crisis” in my economics classes last school year. High school students are very much concerned about this, having waited years to be old enough to drive, and now not being able to make enough money from entry-level jobs to keep gas in anything bigger than a roller skate. One of my AP Macro students spoke out one afternoon pro- claiming that the solution was simple. “All we have to do,” he said, “is open up ANWR to drilling. There’s enough oil up there to last us 200 years!”
“That’s good news, Aaron,” I responded. Then to the rest of the class I said, “Who else has heard about this… anyone?” Three or four hands went up — cautiously, perhaps because they feared being rebuffed.
“Great!” I said. “Problem solved then… but wait, does hearing a claim like this make it so?” Heads began to shake, slowly. “How many of you believe this?” No one said they did, so I turned my attention back to Aaron.
“Aaron, don’t you believe it?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“How come? I mean, sure… it sounds good and I’d like to believe it too, but maybe we oughtta check it out. From whom or from what source did you get this information?
“My dad,” said Aaron.
“Oh. Well, I don’t want to contradict your dad. Fact is, I don’t have enough information immediately available to do so anyway. But I do think this sounds a bit too good to be true… Tell you what: you do some research over the weekend. On Tuesday next week when we meet again, if you can bring me two credible, unbiased sources to support your claim, I’ll bump your last test grade up to an A+. And that goes for anyone else in class who wants to put in the effort. Class dismissed.”
ANWR is a National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska. It consists of 19,049,236 acres (79,318 km²) in the Alaska North Slope region. Because this area is believed to contain a large supply of crude oil, the issue of drilling for oil there has been a debated topic in Congress since the end of World War II. The controversy has been a political football for every U.S. President since Jimmy Carter.
The refuge supports a greater variety of plant and animal life than any other protected area north of the Arctic Circle. A continuum of six different ecozones spans some 200 miles (300 km) north to south and there are presently no roads within or leading into the refuge. There are a couple of Indian settlements there though. On the northern edge of the refuge is the Inupiat village of Kaktovik and, on the southern boundary is a Gwich’nsettlement of Arctic Village. Fearing that exploitation of the ANWR oil reserves would spell the end of their ancesrial way of life, these people do not want drilling to take place.
Tuesday came and I was anxious to hear what Aaron had to tell us.
“Aaron, did you do your homework?”
“Yes, sir,” he said. “I spent an hour on the Internet, but the only sources I could find were from oil companies, an old news item about President Bush scolding Congress for not allowing it, and pro-drilling statements on the websites of both of Alaska’s Senators. None of them, however, claimed to know how long the oil there might last.”
“Ahh… too bad,” I said. “Anybody else come up with something convincing?” Nobody did.
“Well, I came up with something,” I said. “I went to the U.S. Geological Survey’s website and found a study that was done in 1998 for Congress on the amount of oil that might possibly be recoverable from ANWR. The study indicated on the low end, with a statistical probability of 95%, that there’s at least 4.3 billion barrels there. On the high end, the report said that there might be as much as 11.8 billion barrels, but only with a statistical prob- ability of 5%. The mean value is 7.7 billion barrels, meaning that there’s a 50/50 chance of that much oil being there that’s technically recoverable, whether or not it is economically feasible to do so. In addition, in the entire assessment area, which covers not only land under Federal jurisdiction, but also Native lands and adjacent state waters within three miles, technically recoverable oil is estimated to be 10.4 billion barrels. This again is the mean value. Now, understand, nobody knows for sure how much oil is up there — could be more, could be less. But let’s gamble. Let’s say that there is definitely 10.4 billion barrels there and that, with oil at $130+ a barrel, it’s all economically recoverable. If we could have it all tomorrow, or at least as fast as we could use it, how long would it last us?”
To this I got lots of blank stares.
“Hey, 10.4 billion barrels… that’s a lot of oil, right?” To this I got 100% agreement.
“Okay, let’s figure out how long it would last us. From the CIA’s World Factbook, I learned that Americans use, according to a 2005 estimate, 20.8 million barrels a day. Let’s be conservative and round that up to 21. Surely we are using a lot more than that now, three years later — but just to be fair, we’ll use the published number I was able to find. First one to tell me how long 10.4 billion barrels would last us at that rate gets an A on today’s daily assignment.”
One of my brighter students had his hand up in less than a minute. “That would be a little over a year and 4 months, Mr. Garry.”
“Great, thank you, Matt. That’s exactly what I got when I did the math — less than a year and a half worth. But that assumes that we can get it all and that we can get it all out of the ground as fast as we can transport it, refine it, and distribute it, right?” Heads nodded. “Truth is, once drilling starts, it’ll be 5 to 10 years, depending on who you want to believe, before any oil starts flowing out of ANWR and the surrounding areas, and oil companies will only bring out as much of it to market and as fast as it is profitable for them to do so. If they were to decide that it’s most profitable to use it at a rate so as to replace 5% of the supply we get from other countries, the oil there, using our mean figure of 10.4 billion barrels, would last approximately 22 years. But would we, the consumers, notice any difference at all in the price of gasoline at the pump? Who would stand to the gain most from the drilling? And would this much reduction in foreign oil dependence be sufficiently significant to warrant going ahead with it? Before you answer, understand that the native people who live there do not want the drilling to take place. Also, remember what happened in Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska in 1989 — Exxon Valdez.”
I got blank stares again… then, after a long quiet pause, “What should we do, Mr. Garry?” This was Aaron again.
“I don’t know, Aaron, but if you’re asking for my opinion, I think we ought to be conservative. I think we ought to seize upon this moment in history to focus our efforts more on reducing our consumption of oil rather than on sustaining our current appetite for it. The transition to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars and mass transit alternatives will be costly and painful. Old habits do die hard. But within your lifetimes, world oil production will be well beyond its peak and, as world demand grows for it, it will only become more and more expensive. Once it becomes scarce enough, if we have not by then moved on to some other solution for our energy needs, it’s quite possible that we could see mankind destroy itself scrabbling over what’s left of it. In the mean time, we’ve got global warming with which to contend. I think it’s time to start thinking creatively and long-term.”
I invite your comments pro or con to this posting.