Thursday, September 18, 2008

Drill, baby, Drill

George Wuerthner

You’ve seen them, waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store, you glance over like I do. Besides the latest tidbits on who is dating whom these days, or where the latest UFO’s have been sighted, there is usually a headline on the tabloid that proclaims fabulous weight loss on some fad diet. Typically it says something like lose 50 pounds eating ice cream, implying that one can shed weight without having to suffer—indeed, you can continue to enjoy the same sweets that made you fat in the first place. The popularly of such fad diets demonstrates how vulnerable people are to wishful thinking. The only way to lose weight is to consume fewer calories or exercise more so you burn up those calories. Ideally you do both. But people are always ready to believe they can get something for nothing—hence the popularity of ice cream and other so-called “no sweat diets”.

I was reminded of ice cream diets while watching the Republican National Convention. Candidates John McCain and, Sarah Palin were telling Americans that we could gain energy independence by additional drilling of domestic oil reserves. Though they gave lip service to the need for alternative energy as well, both candidates implied that if we only drilled our coastal areas, and places like Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge, we could garner oil independence.

In other words, Americans wouldn’t have to give up driving gas guzzling cars, curb sprawl, invest in mass transit, give up hamburgers (meat diet), and most of all, we would not have to change our vaulted American lifestyle built upon consumerism and waste. All we need to do, we are told, is drill, baby, drill. Even the Democrats have caved, recently introducing legislation to open up more coastal areas to off shore drilling as if this will magically cure our energy woes.


Like eating ice cream to lose weight, we won’t shed those energy calories unless we consume less energy. With only 4% of the world’s population the US consumes 26% of the entire world’s oil supplies. We import 61% of this oil, partially contributing to our huge debt, and enriching the coffers of countries not known to be our friends. According to best estimates, we have already depleted 86-88% of all known US crude oil reserves. Even with new technologies—and assuming that every acre of land containing even a hint of oil were opened to drilling including such cherished places as the coast of California, the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, the Book Cliffs in Colorado, and Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge--the US cannot drill its way to oil independence.

We simply do not have enough oil reserves under US soil to make a dent in our dependency on foreign oil. The fact is that most of the world’s remaining oil reserves are outside of our country’s boundaries. And what we have left is mostly tapped out. The US has 563,000 operating oil wells. By comparison, Saudi Arabia has only 1600 operating wells. Yet even with more than 360 times the number of operating wells, the US produces only 80% of the oil of Saudi Arabia. And Saudi Arabia has barely tapped its known reserves.

The GOP mantra “Drill, baby, drill” may work to galvanize the party faithful, but even the most optimistic oil projections suggest that even if all known oil reserves were tapped, over the next 20 years the US would still be importing 80-90% of the oil it consumes by 2030. Playing upon people’s fears about terrorists’ attacks distracts Americans from the much greater threat posed by our current energy policies. If the major US energy policy continues to be one that emphasizes development, and ultimately use of petroleum, then there is no doubt that the US economic and national security will be in serious jeopardy.

There is a way to significantly reduce our oil dependency, but it doesn’t involve something as simplistic as a drill, baby, drill mantra. While alternative energy offers some relief, the area where we can realize the greatest return on our investments is energy conservation. After all, the oil we don’t burn is the oil we don’t need to import. So where are the best places to find energy savings?


Transportation is the biggest consumer of petroleum in the US, and thus any energy savings in this sector can translate into large energy savings. For instance, if vehicle miles per gallon were doubled--easily done with current technology—we could achieve a huge savings in oil consumption. Some estimates suggest this might reduce our oil consumption by 10-15%.


Heating, cooling, and lighting home and commercial buildings uses a third of all US energy (buildings use other energy sources besides petroleum such as coal-fired electric). Existing cost effective energy conservation measures could cut building energy use significantly. For instance, between 20-40% of all heat and cooling loss in residential buildings is the result of leaks. Windows are a source for 25% of all home energy losses. Modern windows are 4 times as energy efficient as those sold and installed 30 years ago. And the typical gas furnace in America is only 65% efficient, while new modern furnaces are 96% efficient. Lighting consumes 25% of all electricity. New light bulbs, as well as efficient appliances, are all cost effective measures that can be implemented today. Add all these energy conservation savings together, and you again get a large reduction in petroleum demand. Even turning down the thermostat at night could save significant energy. At present only half of the houses in America turn down their thermostat at night, yet it could save 17% on heat energy costs for homeowners.


Another area where we could experience significant energy savings is food consumption—this is one place where dieting could make a difference—at least a switch in diet. At present 13 kcal of energy are expended to produce 1 kcal of food. Two thirds of the energy in food production is for fertilizer and machine operation. Since the major use of agricultural land in the United States is growing grain crops, like corn, that are ultimately fed to livestock, a reduction in meat consumption offers yet another way to reduce energy use. Beef, in particular, requires far more energy than other meat to produce. Switching to a vegetarian diet--or at least a reduction in meat consumption—would offer a huge energy savings.


I haven’t mentioned many other measures that would save energy--from land use planning to reduce sprawl, or providing more public transportation--but my point is probably clear. The easiest way to garner energy independence is not by drilling for more oil, but in reducing energy consumption and waste. And we should not forget that all of these energy savings would be gobbled up if we continue to permit our population to grow without restraint. Without a major shift in our lifestyles we will never affect significant reduction in our energy consumption. And so-called oil independence will be no more than a meaningless slogan. “Drill, drill, drill” is poor public policy and one that will waste resources, squander our wealth, and compromise our future.

1 comment:

troutbirder said...

It's this kind of thinking that makes me believe Churchill was wrong when he said "democracy is the worst kind of government except for all the rest." Your analysis is right on but complex like the issues. If you can explain something in a 1 minute video clip nowdays the general public has no patience for it