Monday, March 22, 2004

Numerators and Denominators
An article in yesterday's New York Times, quoted opponents of oil and gas drilling in Montana's Front Range saying, "How can someone take an area of this magnificence and sell it down the river for a few minutes of natural gas supply?" This perennial anti-development mantra may vary in proportion with the amount of hydrocarbons in question, but it is based on a serious fallacy.

In some ways, the terminology and shorthand of the oil industry helps give rise to this kind of misunderstanding. When experts talk about reservoirs and pumps and express reserve life in terms of reserves-over-production (R/P), a layman could easily conclude that engineers simply dial in how rapidly they want to produce the oil in a given field.

Actual production rates are a function of geological conditions, available technology, and the characteristics of the oil in question, which can vary considerably. There is an optimal rate of production for each well, and exceeding it can damage the reservoir and reduce overall recovery. As a result, production is spread out over many years, with volumes reaching an early peak and then declining. US oil and natural gas production is made up of the contributions from tens of thousands of producing wells, each with its own unique lifespan measured in years or decades, rather than the fanciful minutes or hours indicated.

The "only a few minutes/days/months of supply" fallacy is a wonderful tool for opposing oil or gas development, since through careful choice of numerator and denominator, the value of essentially any oil or gas project--no matter how large, can be made to appear trivial when compared to the environmental consequences that might ensue.

We hear this argument frequently in the case of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is deemed by opponents to hold only "six months of our national demand". Voters might view it differently if told that it has the potential to supply a fifth of total US oil production for 20 years, based on reserve estimates by the US Geological Survey.

Every oil or gas project such as the Front Range or ANWR has genuine pros and cons, some of them quite complex. But I don't think the debate is enhanced by cynically or ignorantly resorting to the kind of trivialization I have described above. We live in a country with an enormous and insatiable appetite for energy. Without the output of thousands of oil and gas fields--all of which were originally in some other, possibly pristine state--none of us would be able to heat our homes or get to work in the morning.

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