Of Oil and ANWR: a 2-Minute Energy Summary


Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska, says “Drill baby, drill!” Environmentalists are aghast. Who is right? I can talk all day about organic brussels sprouts and green decor, but even a green editor can feel hapless in a sea of energy information. As it turns out, father really does know best – my dad has been closely following energy issues since I was a kid. (I’ll never forget the senior year alternative energy report he helped me prepare that got me laughed at in Civics class because I ever so ridiculously insisted that those big old oil reserves were not going to last much longer.) I asked him to help summarize the situation. Here’s what he reminded me:

Oil is front and center and some perspective may help to separate emotion from reality. Chants are nice, but things are nowhere near that simple. One barrel of oil is 42 gallons. At the beginning of the oil age in 1850, we had 2.6-3.0 trillion barrels of oil on earth. We’ve used about half: 1.3-1.5 trillion barrels. Now, the world consumes about 86 million barrels/day, or 32 billion barrels/year. The U.S. uses 21.5 million barrels/day, or 7.8 billion barrels/year, so we have about 36 years left given present consumption. That’s if things hold steady – but we know that China, India and others are going to have a great increase in their fuel needs.

The oil I’m referencing here is the “easy apples” to pick. There are other large reserves, such as shale, which represent fruit that is much, much harder to reach. America has a reserve of about 21 billion barrels in the continental U.S., and we currently import 70% of our oil from unstable and adversarial sources. That’s about 14.7 million barrels/day; we also produce 6.8 million barrels/day on our own. Of course, this is a finite and non-renewable (not to mention dirty) resource. It’s clear we need to move to low-oil or no-oil technologies quickly for both security and environmental reasons – but that transition will take about 20 years at the rate we’ve been going. Companies do not particularly like switching to newer technologies.

Accordingly, many seek new oil sources, which is where the infamous ANWR enters the picture. It’s a 19 million acre preserve of undeveloped land in North East Alaska thought to contain between 20-30 billion barrels of oil. Once online, the extraction rate would be about 1.5 million barrels/day, which would go for domestic supply, not export. The three Northslope fields, about 150 miles away, have yielded 16 billion barrels since 1969, and are now in decline, and produce only 1 million barrels/day for our domestic needs. (The two areas have close to the same reserves.)

Some feel ANWR shouldn’t be accessed due to the pristine nature of the area and the obvious environmental risks involved. Others feel that it should be responsibly tapped to buy time to bridge to a no-oil world, because we can’t do an instant weaning and need relief. I think the nature of the times may require it. However, even optimistic estimates state we probably wouldn’t be able to maximize production from ANWR for at least a decade (we face a similar time challenge with offshore drilling), so the actual cost benefit for average Americans, among other benefits, isn’t going to be felt for years. The bottom line is that we’ve simply waited too long to get started on a sustainable energy transition in a way that isn’t going to be painful. We need these solutions yesterday; best case, they won’t be ready for years. And they aren’t without major environmental costs.

– How about some reader input? I’d love to get your thoughts, and feel free to share helpful links. Special thanks to reader Steve Ost (a.k.a. Dad) for helping to summarize the ANWR dilemma.

Image: Joel Bedford