From SUV's to long commutes, the American lifestyle is based on cheap gasoline. Cheap energy allows us to live far away from our jobs and to engage in conspicuous consumption contests based on who has the biggest automobile. Now, gas prices have skyrocketed, and higher prices at the pump are hitting us where it hurts. Since we also have a presidential election coming up in November, our pain at the pump has been hijacked and turned into a political issue. There are no quick-and-easy solutions to high gas prices, but the Republican candidate, John McCain, is promoting opening up our coasts to offshore drilling as just that: an easy solution that will result in immediate relief.
The following video shows McCain on the campaign trail promoting offshore drilling as a solution to the energy crisis:
Notice how he starts off by asking if the audience is tired of paying $4.00/gallon for gasoline, and then says that when he's president (God forbid!), "we won't pay $4.00 a gallon for gas because we're going to drill offshore, we're going to drill now!" He also implies that offshore drilling will make us "energy independent." This is factually incorrect - opening up offshore areas to drilling will neither reduce gas prices nor make us "energy independent."
However, McCain's campaign seems to have convinced the American public that offshore drilling is a great idea. For example, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll released in late July, 69% of respondents supported increased offshore drilling, while 30% opposed it. Even more striking, 51% of respondents believed that if the ban on offshore drilling were lifted, gas prices would go down within the next year. The talk of drilling has also reopened the perennial debate over increased drilling in Alaska. Although McCain himself has not advocated for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), his running mate, Sarah Palin, is all for it. Based on the chants of "Drill, baby, drill!" that greeted her on stage at the Republican convention, so are many Republicans.
My father actually works in the oil business, so I called him to get his opinion on these proposals. Dad believes that there shouldn't be any areas that are closed to drilling, except maybe iconic tourist spots like the Grand Canyon. He doesn't think that drilling has a significant environmental impact other than marring the scenery. In this respect, we have a difference of opinion. However, he says the best we can hope for from increased domestic drilling is simply prices that don't go up as fast as they otherwise would, and we wouldn't start to see any price impact from drilling until 5-7 years from now. McCain is on the record implying that increased drilling will produce quick relief at the pump. I asked Dad about that, and he said, "That's B.S."
How did so many Americans come to believe in this load of manure? The media has consistently covered the issue in a way that implies increased drilling could have an immediate impact, and has ignored relevant data from the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Agency (EIA) that suggests otherwise. The Center for Economic and Policy Research recently released a report that examines media coverage of offshore drilling. The report notes that if you are reporting on energy, the EIA is where you would go to get objective statistical data. You'd think that if our "independent journalists" wanted to examine the McCain campaign's claims for offshore drilling, they would at least mention the EIA data.
However, the Center for Economic and Policy Research looked at 267 news programs broadcast between June 16th and August 9th, and found that only 1 mentioned the EIA's predictions on the impact of offshore drilling. 24 shows presented partisan claims that were similar to the EIA data. However, since they were described as coming from partisan sources, they were not presented as objective scientific research. In an attempt to seem "fair and balanced," these news organizations are presenting both sides of the debate as if they are based on opinions. They neglect to mention that there is relevant, valid, statistical data available that directly contradicts what John McCain has been saying in his campaign speeches. In other words, they are letting him get away with lying.
What does the EIA have to say that the media have done such a wonderful job of ignoring? According to the EIA's Annual Outlook to 2007 with Projections to 2030, there is estimated to be approximately 59 billion barrels of oil in the offshore areas that are currently closed to drilling. Getting that oil out should impact gas prices, right? Not so fast! According to the report, "because oil prices are determined on the international market, however, any impact on average wellhead prices is expected to be insignificant." The EIA report also advises that if we open up the coasts to drilling in 2012, production wouldn't start until 2017, so it would be at least 5 years before we'd see any oil. If we opened it up this year, that's 2013. If McCain won this election, his presidency would be over by then.
**A note on the chart above (courtesy of A. Siegel of Get Energy Smart Now):
As far as drilling in ANWR is concerned, here is what the EIA has to say:
With respect to the world oil price impact, projected ANWR oil production constitutes between 0.4 and 1.2 percent of total world oil consumption in 2030, based on the low and high resource cases, respectively. Consequently, ANWR oil production is not projected to have a large impact on world oil prices.-EIA's Analysis of Crude Oil Production in the Arctic National Refuge (pdf)
Additionally, if we opened up drilling in ANWR this year, the EIA's analysis predicts that the oil wouldn't start flowing until 2018 - 10 years from now. So, even if we opened up both the coasts and ANWR to drilling, we would only see a negligible impact on prices and it would be years before we would even see that.
What about becoming energy independent, the other assertion McCain keeps making in his speeches about offshore drilling? Page 11 of the EIA report on ANWR has a table that shows the net import share of our primary oil supply in various scenarios. The "2008 reference case," without any input from ANWR, shows us importing 54% of our oil supply. The highest production scenario for ANWR shows us importing 48% in 2030 when production peaks. We are not going to become "energy independent" by continuing to feed our fossil fuel addiction.
Environmental Costs of Drilling In Sensitive Areas
From examining the government's data on drilling in areas that are currently closed, you can see that there won't be a significant benefit to American pocketbooks. What's the potential for harm? From an environmental perspective, the coasts and ANWR are off-limits to drilling because they are both ecologically rich and ecologically sensitive. In terms of offshore drilling, this report from USA Today shows that new technology and more care from the oil industry have made offshore drilling reasonably safe, but some risks still remain. For example, canals and pipelines dug by oil companies to facilitate transporting the oil can cause erosion and damage fragile (and valuable) coastal wetlands. Generally, offshore drilling operations also require infrastructure, including ports and petrochemical plants. Unavoidably, building these structures impacts fragile coastal regions. Pollutants can also be discharged back into the ocean from the wells, although the (recently scandalized) Minerals Management Service says that government regulations limit these discharges to insignificant amounts.
The biggest threat caused by offshore drilling comes not from the drilling itself, but from transporting it back to land. According to USA Today, the Minerals Management Service predicts that each year for the next 40 years, we'll see one oil spill of at least 1,000 barrels in the Gulf of Mexico. Every three to four years, they predict a big spill of at least 10,000 barrels. The effects of hurricanes off the Gulf coast on oil rigs and pipe lines doesn't help matters. A big spill in the wrong place can have tragic consequences for wildlife, as well as damaging the economies of coastal communities that depend heavily on tourism.
What about ANWR? Proponents like Sarah Palin say that only about 2,000 acres of the preserve would be developed, but in order to develop the full potential of the oil fields under ANWR's coastal plain, those 2,000 acres would have to be widely dispersed and connected by roads and pipelines. This raises the real concern of habitat fragmentation for the animals that call this section of ANWR home. Also, it means that there will be an area much larger than 2,000 acres where wildlife will be disrupted by the presence of people.
Drilling proponents like to point out that the ANWR coastal plain is not particularly scenic. However, just because it's not "pretty" does not mean that it isn't valuable to the animals that live there. Other than the possibility, however slight, of an oil spill polluting what is currently a pristine environment, the major environmental concern is the Porcupine caribou herd. The herd's prime calving grounds are right in the middle of the area that would be opened for drilling. The Central Arctic caribou herd that winters on the North Slope in Prudhoe Bay has increased even with the drilling activity there. In fact, pictures of a large herd of caribou apparently hanging out and partying in the shadow of oil rigs are routinely dragged out to prove that oil development in Alaska has little environmental impact.
However, according to a report by the US Department of the Interior, the Porcupine caribou herd is far more vulnerable to the effects of development than the Central Arctic herd. In all caribou herds, including the Central Arctic herd, females about to give birth and with young calves will avoid areas with any sign of human activity. In the case of the Central Arctic herd, the animals were able to successfully shift their calving grounds away from developed areas without a major increase in calf mortality. The Porcupine herd, on the other hand, has nowhere else to go that provides the same combination of plentiful food and few predators. According to the US Department of the Interior's report:
The simulations indicated that a substantial reduction in calf survival during June would be expected under full development of the 1002 Area. Eighty-two percent of observed calving distributions would have been displaced and the average distance of these displacements would have been 63 km (range 16-99 km). This would have yielded a net average effective displacement of 52 km and an expected mean reduction in calf survival of 8.2%. - US Department of the Interior, Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain Terrestrial Wildlife Research Summaries
The report also indicates that a reduction in the calf survival rate of as low as 4.6% would stop the herd from growing completely.
I don't doubt that the oil industry would conduct their operations in ANWR with as much caution and as little impact as possible if they were given access. They'd have to, because environmental groups would be watching, just waiting for them to slip up. Carelessness or wanton disregard on the part of the oil companies would create a PR nightmare. However, even with the utmost care and the best technology, accidents can happen...and "oops" just doesn't cut it when it comes to an oil spill on one of the last pristine places on earth. Plus, some impact on wildlife is unavoidable, and in the case of the caribou herd it could be devastating. Finally, ANWR is unique in that it's one of the last places humans haven't yet disturbed. Thoreau once said, "Thank God men cannot as yet fly and lay waste the sky as well as the earth!" It's too late for that, but we do still have ANWR.
The other compelling argument against drilling in these sensitive areas is that it creates complacency. We need to be switching over to alternative energy sources. We need to be doing this now. In fact, we should have started doing it decades ago. Drilling takes the public's focus off of what is going to be a difficult and somewhat painful transition, and it takes the focus off of the need to conserve the fossil fuels we do have. Think of the way the McCain campaign mocked their Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, for suggesting that checking tire pressure would help conserve gas, implying that drilling for more oil would be more effective than bothersome conservation measures. We are addicted to oil...we need to make breaking that addiction a national priority. Using our resources to drill more is kind of like a junkie looking for "just one more fix" before they go into rehab. We should be investing in "oil rehab" instead, developing solar power, wind power, wave power, geothermal power and other renewable energy sources as fast as we possibly can.
Some increase in offshore drilling appears to be unavoidable now, particularly after the recent passage of the Energy Bill in the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, the people that think gas prices will drop because of it are going to be sorely disappointed. That's what happens when we have leaders who don't want to deal honestly with public and a media that would rather present "both sides of the story" then do any digging to see which side is actually true.