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|July 17-23, 2008
Back to Letters
No excuse for not drilling
by Paul Danish
One of the more commonly used talking points of those who oppose drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or on the Outer Continental Shelf is that it would be at least 5 to 7 years before any ANWR or OCS crude reached U.S. refineries.
It’s one of the dumber arguments environmentalists and their Democratic allies in Congress make, and if you want to know why, consider how long it would take to produce an equivalent amount of fuel from any alternative source. There isn’t one that could make a difference in less than five to seven years.
Assume that we could be producing 2 million barrels of oil a day from ANWR and the OCS in five to seven years if we started drilling today. Now consider a few of the alternatives:
Wind: The oilman T. Boone Pickens thinks wind-generated electricity could help reduce the nation’s gasoline consumption — by replacing the natural gas currently used for electric power generation, which could then be used as a transportation fuel. (There are 7 million vehicles in the world that run on natural gas so the technology is proven.)
Replacing the nation’s 200,000 megawatts of natural gas powered generating capacity with wind powered generating capacity will require the fabrication and installation of about 135,000 1.5-megawatt, 35-story-tall wind turbines. Only the real number is probably at least twice as large, since wind turbines only produce at peak capacity about 35 percent of the time. It’s hard to imagine anywhere near that number of wind turbines could be built and deployed in less than five to seven years, even if the country were on a war footing.
Ethanol: Congress set the time line for U.S. ethanol production in the energy bill it passed last December. The U.S. is to use 36 billion gallons of ethanol a year (or about 2.5 million barrels a day) by 2020, which is 12 years from now. More than half of that 21 billion gallons is supposed to come from cellulosic ethanol. There are currently no commercial scale cellulosic ethanol plants in operation (although several are under construction, which may or may not perform as promised). Getting two or three hundred of them up and running in 12 years is going to be a big challenge, never mind five to seven years.
Moreover, in order for either natural gas or ethanol to serve as a gasoline substitute, the auto industry will have to build tens of millions of new cars and trucks. If it were able to design, retool, and build them in five to seven years, it would be a manufacturing miracle.
Gasoline from coal: The technology for making gasoline from coal has been around since the 1920s, and with crude oil selling at $145 a barrel it’s likely cost-competitive. Just 10 plants, each capable of producing 250,000 barrels a day, would produce as much oil as could be produced from ANWR and the OCS five to seven years from now. But constructing a commercial coal liquefaction plant would be comparable to constructing a power plant or an oil refinery; it could easily take five to seven years — even without environmental delays, which there would be.
Oil shale: Oil has never been produced from shale in commercial quantities in the United States. The most promising technology for doing so, Shell Oil’s in situ technology, has not progressed beyond a proof of principle test on a one acre plot. To assume a barely-proven technology could be turned into a two million barrel a day commercial industry in less than five to seven years is taking the audacity of hope a bit far.
Conservation: Congress has mandated that the Corporate Average Fuel Economy of cars and trucks sold in the U.S. rise to 35 miles a gallon by 2020 — 12 years from now — which could save 4 million barrels a day of gasoline. If gasoline prices stay above $4 a gallon, consumer decisions to buy higher mileage cars may well produce some real gasoline savings — say 2 million barrels a day — several years earlier. Like in five to seven years.
The point is that when it comes to replacing 2 million barrels a day worth of gasoline with any alternative, the sheer size of the task guarantees that it will take a minimum of five to seven years. Those who use the five-to-seven-year time frame as a pretext for not trying to produce more oil are being intellectually dishonest.
And defeatist. Five to seven years ago the people who opposed drilling were arguing it was pointless because it would take five to seven years before any oil was produced. Well if it had been done then, there would likely be 2 million barrels a day more oil available in world markets today, and the price of a barrel of crude would be a lot closer to $30 than $145.
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