22 Jun 2008: Opinion

As Energy Prices Rise,
the Pressure to Drill Builds

President Bush is urging Congress to open the U.S. coasts and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. But America must ultimately wean itself off fossil fuels. The question is whether it makes the transition now — or waits until every last one of its unspoiled places has been drilled.

by eugene linden

Perhaps we should be amazed that America’s largest protected area — the 19.2 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) — has remained inviolate this long. Politicians from U.S. energy-producing states and the fossil fuel lobby have been trying to open the area for drilling since the United States Geological Survey first posited significant reserves there in the 1980s. Despite continuous pressure, however, ANWR has remained off limits, mostly because enough members of Congress have accepted the argument that the caribou, musk ox, polar bear, and other fauna and flora of the fragile coastal plain would be threatened by development.

Enlarge image
Brooks Range in ANWR
U.S. Fish and Wildlife

Enlarge image
Oil rig
123rf.com
The rise in oil prices has reopened the debate about drilling offshore and in ANWR, shown above with the Brooks Range in the distance.
Now, with oil at $140 a barrel and gas more than $4.00 a gallon, talking heads once again fill the U.S. airwaves with sneers about the absurdity of keeping ANWR off-limits because of bleeding-heart environmentalists who put caribou over people. President Bush has ratcheted up the political pressure, demanding that Democrats agree not only to open ANWR, but also to end a 26-year congressional ban on drilling for oil and gas off the east and west coasts of the United States. The president asked that the drilling bans on the outer continental shelf and in ANWR be lifted before Congress adjourns for summer recess — an unlikely scenario, but one that illustrates how politically sensitive the issue of high energy prices has become.

The arguments for drilling haven’t changed since I visited ANWR 19 years ago, but the stakes have skyrocketed. As the pressures to find new supplies of oil mount, the fate of ANWR has grown from being a symbolic mirror of American values into a test of the conviction with which those values are held. The object of this battle is an Austria-sized swath of mountains, coastal plain, and tundra bordering the Arctic Ocean in northeastern Alaska. It was easier to protect this wilderness for the sake of wildlife and future generations when the conventional wisdom assumed that increased demand for oil would always be matched by new discoveries somewhere else.

Now, with ominous signs that global oil production has begun to stall, this test has gotten a lot harder. It’s a test with two questions: Is there anything we Americans won’t sacrifice to feed our lust for oil? And will the future history of the rise and fall of the American dream simply be a story of the discovery and exploitation of oil?

There’s little dispute that ANWR contains significant oil reserves, though how much is subject to debate. (Optimistic estimates project that peak ANWR production will be roughly 800,000 barrels per day in about 20 years.) What is indisputable is that opening ANWR will not reverse America’s dependence on imports — at maximum production, ANWR will produce less than 7 percent of what the U.S. currently imports each day, and that high level of output would last only about a dozen years. Domestic oil production peaked in 1970 in the United States and has been on a steady decline for decades. Opening ANWR and other vulnerable areas on the continental shelf might slightly delay our increasing dependence on foreign supplies, but such actions will not reverse the decline. Thus we face a choice: We can shift to alternatives to fossil fuels while some vestiges of America’s wildlands remain intact, or we can do the same thing after every corner of the landscape has been marked by drilling and mining.

It didn’t have to be this way, which brings us to test question number two. Given oil’s utter dominance in the global economy, it’s easy to forget that little more than a century ago it was just one of several forms of energy competing for attention. In the late 19th century, the worry was peak coal, not peak oil, and tinkerers explored ways to capture solar, wind, tidal, wave, and other forms of alternative energy, many of them similar in design and form to 21st-century projects being touted as visionary today.

For instance, John Perlin, the author of From Space to Earth: the Story of Solar Electricity, notes that a present-day 400-megawatt solar power plant in the Mojave Desert uses the same basic principles as a plant built in Egypt in 1912 and 1913 by an engineer named Frank Shuman. Most of these early ventures fell prey to a liquid fossil fuel that came to mesmerize the public, so much so that people began to equate oil with energy. The very phrase “alternative energy” implies that anything other than fossil fuels is marginal.

Now, a century later, the United States is slowly awakening from this century-long trance and engineers and entrepreneurs are once again looking covetously at the power of the sun and seas. Unfortunately, the century of missed opportunities comes with a price. The readily deployable alternatives — notably wind and solar energy — will have to grow many times faster than they’ve ever grown simply to keep up with the increased demand for energy, much less make up for declining domestic production or declining oil available on the export market. The goal is a stretch, but achieving it would happily put to rest the question of whether the key to American prosperity was ingenuity or oil.

Achieving that goal would also take the pressure off ANWR and other remaining wild places. Through their votes and wallets, Americans have demonstrated that they value conservation and environmental protection. But, just as fears about security have tested our commitment to the Bill of Rights, concerns about energy challenge the depth of our convictions when it comes to the environment. Let’s hope we’ll do better on this new test.

POSTED ON 22 Jun 2008 IN Biodiversity Climate Climate Energy Energy Policy & Politics Europe North America 

COMMENTS


And who are you but not a talking head?

A saudi oil mininster once said " the stone age did not end for the lack of stones."

When renewables are developed to the extent where they can compete with oil, oil will then become obsolete.

Psst, climate change is a bust.

Lets not cripple our economies over foolish hysteria.


Posted by Ray Reynolds on 03 Jul 2008


"The object of this battle is an Austria-sized swath of mountains, coastal plain, and tundra bordering the Arctic Ocean in northeastern Alaska." Like the photo you use this discriptor is also deceitful.
You describe the entire ANWR. HOWEVER, the area of ANWR in question is roughly the size of the Dulles airport complex in Washington D.C.. It is a flat, bleak , narrow section of coastal mud flat that is frozen and windswept most of the year. It was specifically set aside by the Congress you laud specifically for drilling in the 1990's. President Clinton then vetoed the bipartisan legislation.
As for the Caribou, Ox, Polar Bear and any other furry/feathered/scaled creature you want to include, your scare mongering is without merit. In the real world wildlife flourishs amid drilling and production areas in other Arctic regions, and would do so near ANWR facilities. Inuits who live there know this, and support drilling by an 8:1 margin
The photo you use as an illustration of ANWR, and to envoke fear of despoilation, is not of the drilling area. It is a shot, nearly 100 miles away from the drilling site looking southward at the Brooks Range.
Point of fact: solar, wind, Blue-Green algae and other alternatives are 10-20 years away from taking on the load you describe, if then.
I agree with you on one thing, we do need to establish a cogent, comprehensive energy plan for our future. Such a plan would recognize the need for oil in the near term of 0-10 years, a over lapping transitional period of 10-20 years where noncereal generated Methanol, wind, nuclear and an expanded electrical grid infrastructure would support a growing fleet of flex fueled plug in hybrids. Solar, algae based biofuel and other alternatives could easily phase into this grid as they became actually viable.
Lets leave the ghost stories to the campfire and sleep overs.



Posted by Bill Wadford on 02 Aug 2008


Mr. Wadford:

You claim that "the area of ANWR in question is
roughly the size of the Dulles airport complex in
Washington D.C.. It is a flat, bleak , narrow
section of coastal mud flat that is frozen and
windswept most of the year."

While the total surface area used for actual
drilling may be comparable to that of Dulles, this
estimate does not include the additional roads,
airstrips and additional facilities required to
support extractive operations. Your assertion
that a small area would be affected, while it
sounds pleasant, is wholly erroneous.

Such disturbances may be common around
Prudhoe Bay, but that area is not the primary
route of the world's largest mammal migration,
the Porcupine Caribou herd. I wonder what
portion of Gwich'in Athabaskan Indians who
stand to lose their primary food source (and the
source of a majority of their culture) support
more arctic oil exploration?

Similarly, 195 bird species have been
documented in the refuge. A majority of these
species breed and nest in the area, coming from
as far as South America and New Zealand.

On top of this, the scientific literature shows that
it is incredibly difficult to restore degraded
tundra, and that the greenhouse gas emissions
released in disturbing tundra may be higher
than previously thought.

You fail to mention the fact that any extracted
oil from ANWR may go anywhere that global
demand merits, coming on line perhaps
sometime in the next decade. U.S. consumer
price relief at the gas pump is not a guarantee
from this proposal, but risking the destruction of
one of America's last national treasures while
providing corporate welfare to the world's most
profitable companies is.

Perhaps political pundits, er--radical neo-
conservative bloggers, should refrain from
taking on scientific issues they are too
uninformed to understand?
Posted by Nathaniel Hough-Snee on 02 Aug 2008


Baffling post Mr. Hough-Snee. You started out so well. I was reading with great interest and thinking you were making a reasoned response. That is until I got to your childish name calling. You amply illustrate what Vaclav Klaus calls a metaphysical socialistic environmental ideology coupled with intellectual bigotry. Are you a freshman or sophomore at Yale?
A couple of observations from an unwashed Libertarian. The Gwich'in Indians do oppose ANWR drilling. However, they live hundreds of miles away – and here is the irony, they have already leased and drilled their own tribal lands, including caribou migratory routes. Think they may have selfish economic reasons to oppose the Inuit leasing their land?
The Caribou have no problems migrating under the Alaska Pipeline. In fact they seem to be thriving in and around the drilling areas adjacent to ANWR. Is there any logical reason to believe they would not continue their adaptations in this small area of ANWR?
As for other wildlife, Alaska’s Governor Palin recently said this to Investor’s Business Daily. “There are magnificent caribou and wolves and bears and porcupines and birds all through Alaska. You can see them thriving today as you could in the 1960s, before pipelines were built. Talk about coexistence: We've got grizzlies roaming on the pipeline, and caribou migrations passing underneath it.
When people visit Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope, they appreciate how Alaska's resources go from the ground to the pipeline to the lower 48. But they also get to learn about Arctic wildlife, because it's right there, it's thriving, and we work hard to responsibly develop resources so that will always be the case. Our mantra is develop responsibly. And as governor, I have to do more than talk. I have to walk the walk.”
Before you stroke out, yes I do know she is a Republican. I also know she has an 84% approval rating from ALL Alaskans.
I would be interested in what you would envision as a cogent, real world energy plan for the next 100 years.




Posted by Bill Wadford on 03 Aug 2008


I thought for a moment you might reference
Vaclav Smil, an energy expert, but alas you
referenced the former Czech prime minister
Vaclav Claus, known primarily for comparing
environmental research and awareness to
religion while allowing corruption to reign in
under-regulated free markets.

Another thing, I had terrible trouble finding any
information on the Gwich'in of Alaska drilling for
anything on their historically accustomed lands.
Perhaps you have more formal proof than your
claims?

Regarding your last query: I'll refrain from
mentioning energy conservation, regulation of
automobile CAFE standards, or removing U.S. oil
and gas subsidies to allow free market
competition from alternative technologies,
because you may just write them off as
'metaphysical socialism.'

Now that it's clear you'd prefer to argue political
ideology rather than fact, I'll hang my boots up.

Yours in intellectual bigotry,

Nate
Posted by Nathaniel Hough-Snee on 04 Aug 2008


Nate,

It's been fun. Looking forward to our next interchange. I do have a serious question and no I am not trying to set you up. Where do you recommend I go to research the bird's of ANWR?

Bill
Posted by Bill Wadford on 09 Aug 2008


"Pressure to Drill Builds" and expensive with all the know how we are still struggling nothing is stable anymore
Posted by Joseph on 03 Mar 2009


For instance, John Perlin, the author of From Space to Earth: the Story of Solar Electricity, notes that a present-day 400-megawatt solar power plant in the Mojave Desert uses the same basic principles as a plant built in Egypt in 1912 and 1913 by an engineer named Frank Shuman. Most of these early ventures fell prey to a liquid fossil fuel that came to mesmerize the public, so much so that people began to equate oil with energy. The very phrase “alternative energy” implies that anything other than fossil fuels is marginal.

I think this is kinda cool for example. All of us have different opinions.
Posted by Tom on 18 Mar 2009


Most of these early ventures fell prey to a liquid fossil fuel that came to mesmerize the public, so much so that people began to equate oil with energy. The very phrase “alternative energy” implies that anything other than fossil fuels is may be suspect.
Posted by Koxp on 22 Mar 2009


I would really like to see the EPA-OBD II Annual Vehicle Emissions Inspection Law closely examined, and changed. As it stands right now, it is entirely possible for any Gasoline powered Vehicle, from 1996 to the present, to fail it's Emissions Inspection, for not emitting enough Polluting Exhaust Emissions! All such Vehicles have on board Oxygen [O2] Exhaust Sensors.These O2 Sensors are set up to detect a level of Polluting Exhaust Emissions that would indicate that Gasoline is being consumed by an Engine at 14.7 parts of Air to 1 part of Fuel. If there is a low level of Oxygen, and a high level of Pollution, a Vehicle will fail it's Emissions Inspection, as well it should. But, Gasoline can be safely vaporized into a mixture that is 100 parts of Air to 1 part of Fuel. With this, even the largest SUV could easily get 50 + MPG, and emit a fraction of the Emissions of a conventional 14.7/1 Fuel System, with an increase in Power, and much longer Engine life. I'm not the first to figure this out. Far from it ! For proof, do a search on [the late] Tom Ogle, and Charles Nelson Pogue. Then, go to http://energy21.freeservers.com/bookrep.html. But, even if it is not to be believed that Fuel Vaporization is entirely possible, it's illegal to even attempt to do, with any Vehicle, 13 years old, or newer.O2 Sensors are set up to detect that Fuel is being consumed at 14.7/1. A mixture of 100 / 1 will not emit enough Polluting Exhaust Emissions to register on O2 Sensors.When such a Vehicle is connected to an OBD II Emissions Inspection Analyzer, an O2 Sensor Failure Code will be generated, which will result in a failed Emissions Inspection.O2 Sensor Exemptions are permitted for Vehicles that have been legally converted to operate on Natural Gas, Propane, or Hydrogen, and are Registered as such.But not for Vaporized Gasoline. Thus, it is entirely possible, under this EPA-OBD II Vehicle Emissions Inspection Law, for any Gasoline Powered Vehicle, 13 years old, or newer, to fail it's Emissions Test, for not emitting enough Polluting Exhaust Emissions! As long as this insane 14.7/1 Law, that only benefits Big Oil, remains in effect, the only way to make Vehicles more "Efficient" will be to make them lighter, and smaller. This has got to change! I have asked the Question many times; "Why is it illegal for any Gasoline powered Vehicle, 13 Years old, or newer, to emit too little Polluting Exhaust Emissions"? So far, not one Big Oil Executive, Politician, or Concerned Environmentalist will answer the Question. Those that have replied can't seem to come up with an answer.
Posted by Gary Kirkland on 04 Jun 2009


At present-day 400-megawatt solar power plant in the Mojave Desert uses the same basic principles as a plant built in Egypt in 1912 and 1913 by an engineer named Frank Shuman. Most of these early ventures fell prey to a liquid fossil fuel that came to mesmerize the public, so much so that people began to equate oil with energy.
Posted by Defensive Driving on 04 Aug 2009


But, Gasoline can be safely vaporized into a mixture that is 100 parts of Air to 1 part of Fuel. With this, even the largest SUV could easily get 50 + MPG, and emit a fraction of the Emissions of a conventional 14.7/1 Fuel System, with an increase in Power, and much longer Engine life. I'm not the first to figure this out. Far from it ! For proof, do a search on [the late] Tom Ogle, and Charles Nelson Pogue
Posted by hair dryer reviews on 22 Aug 2009


Comments have been closed on this feature.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eugene Linden writes about science, technology, the environment, and humanity's relationship with nature. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Time magazine, where he covered the environment for many years. His most recent book is Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations.

 
 

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