Many politicians are rushing to support President Bush's call to permit oil drilling in the Atlantic National Wildlife Refuge and on the Outer Continental Shelf. Is that a solution to our energy problem?
No, it's an affirmation of Groucho Marx's definition of politics. “Politics,” the comedian said, “is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it, and then misapplying the wrong remedies.”
The U.S. Department of Energy says the oil in those places wouldn't be available in significant amounts for a decade or more. When it did become available, it likely would have little or no effect on the price of gasoline. And it wouldn't come anywhere close to freeing the United States from dependence on foreign oil.
That's why for politicians, it's a dream solution. They can act as though they've done something when in fact they haven't.
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Salvation in the Arctic?
What is the energy potential of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain?
The U.S. Energy Information Administration, an independent statistical agency within the Department of Energy, concluded that if Congress voted to open the refuge to exploration today, new oil from ANWR would lower the world price of oil by no more than $1.44 per barrel – and possibly as little as 41 cents per barrel – and its largest impact would come nearly 20 years from now.
For comparison, last week crude sold for $145 a barrel, so if ANWR oil were available today it would lower the price by about 1 percent.
How much oil would ANWR supply? The EIA's estimate is 0.4 percent to 1.2 percent of total world oil consumption in 2030. Imports would still supply two-thirds of U.S. oil needs.
America's oil problem isn't insufficient supply, it's voracious consumption. Unless that changes, finding a little more oil would be like putting another Twinkie on a glutton's plate.
Remember 1973, when the Arab oil suppliers cut supply sharply to punish nations that backed Israel in the Yom Kippur war? That was an early warning about the danger of our addiction.
Back then, about 24 percent of the oil our nation used was imported. In 1990, at the start of the first Gulf War, we imported 42 percent. Today, as another war in the Middle East drags on, we import almost 70 percent.
Overall, the United States – with 4 percent of the world's population and 3 percent of its oil reserves – uses nearly a quarter of the world's oil.
Think the price is steep now? Imagine how it will be when people in China and India decide they want to drive cars, too, and world demand for oil grows as predicted by 50 percent between now and 2030.
Agenda for Washington
Rather than squabble over a small amount of untapped oil, what should our nation be doing?
Extend the federal tax incentives for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. This is a key element in encouraging the development of low-carbon alternatives to oil and coal. The House has approved it. Surely the Senate will soon.
Devise incentives to improve the efficiency of cars and small trucks. Though all of us wish we owned a car that got 35 miles a gallon, America's 250 million automobile fleet won't be replaced overnight. There are ways to convert many of those vehicles so they can use a blend of gasoline and ethanol. Congress should push that.
Electricity is the ideal energy source. It can be produced with a variety of fuels, all available in this country. Our nation should be on a crash course to develop rechargeable batteries that will enable electricity to power our automobiles.
Coal is our nation's most plentiful energy resource, but it contributes heavily to global warming. More research and development are needed so we can use it safely. And we need a carbon cap-and-trade program that will reward companies that cut emissions and encourage others to do so.
In short, there is much America could have been doing, but hasn't.
The problem is no surprise. In reaction to the 1973 embargo, President Nixon launched Project Independence, with this national goal: “in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need to provide our jobs, to heat our homes, and to keep our transportation moving.”
Why are we even farther from that goal today? Groucho got it right.