Tuesday, August 5, 2008

More drilling won't help you now

Gas prices skyrocket, and suddenly everyone's crying for more domestic oil drilling. It is human nature, or so it would seem, to deal with disasters as they happen instead of preparing in advance. This most recent example would appear to be no exception.

The big GOP talking point of the day is "More offshore drilling! Open ANWR!" In response to this, the Democratic talking points have been "Implement a windfall tax on oil companies!" and even the confusing "Open more coal power plants!" Everyone's reacting, and very few are actually acting. Don't even get me started on forethought.

Over at folkbum's, a debate erupted over this very subject when it was brought up that the latest feigned outrage was over Obama making some remark about people needing to keep the tires on their cars filled so as to save gas. The comment is pretty much a non-issue in my opinion, but the conversation (if you can call it that) it sparked, and the greater subject to which it relates, is certainly worth examining.

It should be obvious that both Obama and McCain are playing to their percieved constituents on this issue: one calling for more oil drilling and nuclear power, the other for conservation and alternate sources of fuel (and when I say "alternate" I don't necessarily mean all-green, as is the case with his call for new coal-fired plants). Their positions are fairly predictable given their political parties, and neither one is really getting to the root of the problem, or proposing viable, long-term solutions.

It's understandable that people want relief from the crazy high fuel prices, and that they want it now. The transportation industry--the people who bring us our food and other material goods--is especially suffering now, with diesel hitting an average of $4.68/gallon and gas at just over $4.

Here's the thing, though: even if we opened currently off-limits off-shore sites to drilling right now, the data suggests that we 1) wouldn't see any of this new oil for another decade or so, and 2) it would likely only decrease the cost of gas by a few cents.

The Energy Information Administration put out a substantive and informative report on the subject, wherein even after taking an optimistic look at future trends, they conclude that opening the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) to new drilling "would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030." They add that, "For the lower 48 OCS, annual crude oil production in 2030 is projected to be 7 percent higher—2.4 million barrels per day in the OCS access case compared with 2.2 million barrels per day in the reference case. Because oil prices are determined on the international market, however, any impact on average wellhead prices is expected to be insignificant."

What's especially significant about that last part is, as pointed out by the folks over at Climate Progress, that:
Offshore drilling is projected by EIA to deliver less extra annual oil production in 2030 than Saudi Arabia announced it would add this year, an announcement that had no significant impact whatsoever on oil prices. [In fact, oil prices actually went up — see yesterday’s AP story, “Oil prices rise despite Saudi vow to pump more.”]
The Bush Administration's own energy analysts' research flies in the face of what both the White House and the McCain campaign are trying to sell the American people on. Read another great, in-depth look at the shenanigans here.

So, the numbers just don't add up. And neither do the very real environmental risks we'd run by opening more of the OCS to drilling, but for some reason that argument seems to ring less important with certain of the more oil advocates.

Then what about the coal powered plants and the coal-to-liquid fuel of which Obama speaks? Those ideas, too, are sketchy at best--and primarily because people, politicians mostly, are trying to (or mistakenly) conflate the two. They are not the same. While IGCC coal plants (coal gasification, or producing electricity from coal) can be relatively environmentally sustainable if the process includes effective carbon sequestration, the much-touted coal-to-liquids process (producing diesel fuel from coal) is pretty much across the board a bad idea: "because even if the CO2 created in manufacturing is sequestered, the fuel itself releases twice as much CO2 as gasoline when combusted."

What to do, then? Both candidate's are right when they talk about better energy conservation, and that's something we can all implement, in both big and small ways, right now. But it will take more than that to secure a future where we're not destroying the earth in the name of a quick-fix solution.

I've pointed out this article before, but I'm going to do it again because I think it's that good and that relevent: "The Seven Myths of Energy Independence" by Paul Roberts makes an excellent case for why we should be focused more not on "energy independence," but rather on "energy security." That is, the United States cannot hope to move into a more sustainable future without the help of the rest of the world, so working to make this place more secure for everyone is more important than looking only inward in an attempt to solve all of our problems.

Drilling for more oil isn't going to help enough to make a positive difference. Neither will coal-to-fuel plants, or even corn-based ethanol (that's a topic for another post, though). This has nothing to do with political affiliation and everything to do with sound research, planning, and the hope for a better future.

Gas prices are going to suck for awhile, and that's pretty much the only garauntee we have right now. And what we do right now to address the problem will determine whether we continue our slide down into complete energy insecurity and environmental destruction, or whether we pull ourselves up into a greener, more sustainable future in tandem with the rest of our world.

UPDATED TO ADD: This solid essay on the matter from HuffPo.

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