Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Drilling What's Left
Last week the NY Times featured an editorial by former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, in which he decried potential oil drilling in a sensitive portion of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Note that this is not the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but rather an area set aside by Congress for future oil exploration. I can't dispute Secretary Babbit's assertions about the ecological importance of the lake in question, or the area in general. I haven't the competence, nor is that the point. Rather, I am struck by the urgency of approaching the country's energy needs in a way that is realistic and recognizes the inevitability of trade-offs.

The lower-48 states are the most heavily explored and exploited oil province in the world, having produced nearly as much oil in the last 140 years as the Saudis claim to have left today. That has real implications for future domestic oil production, which peaked in the early 1970s and has been declining ever since, from roughly 10 million barrels per day then to about 6 million now, including Alaska. Although less heavily explored, Alaska is also experiencing declining production. The North Slope oil that made such a difference in the aftermath of the 1970s oil shocks reached a peak of 2 million barrels per day in the late 1980s, and is now less than half that. Without new discoveries, it will continue to drop.

There is additional oil to be found, but it will be in places that are more challenging (e.g. in deep water offshore), more remote, or previously off-limits to drilling. While at best this oil can extend the long plateau of US production, foregoing it entirely will lead directly to the rapid offshoring of the entire industry. I don't know if the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska can provide the backfill needed to maintain Alaskan production at the current level, but without it, or oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it is predetermined that Alaskan production will fall. That means more imports, without even considering the steady growth in demand.

While I can understand that there are some areas that are just so beautiful or so important to the natural world that we shouldn't drill there, I have a harder time seeing how we can continue to carve out chunks of Alaska as big as other states, set them off-limits, and yet continue to demand increasing quantities of oil and other energy to fuel our lifestyles. Something has to give, and this should be obvious to everyone, policy-makers and voters alike.

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