Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Welcome to Charge: the future of energy

Today is the day of George W. Bush’s State of the Union Message. Predictably, it contains references to the Bush Administration’s putative policy for energy independence, namely, stepped up oil exploration and drilling on American soil.

While energy independence seems a laudable goal, is this in fact the way to achieve it?

If one includes unconventional oil resources, primarily oil shale here in the U.S., the answer is a very qualified yes, and, in fact Bush recently authorized renewed exploration and exploitation of the Green River oil shale deposits which lie almost entirely upon Federal lands in the Rocky Mountains. But Bush’s real focus is elsewhere. The eyes of his Administration are on the Alaska Wildlife Refuge which has long been off limits to oil companies but which will almost surely be opened to exploration later in Bush’s second term.

Many objections have been raised as to this gambit on environmental grounds, but remarkably few members of the press have addressed the central issue, namely, just how much oil is likely to reside in this region.

Current D.O.E. estimates range from just shy of 6 billion barrels to as much as 16 billion. Since total proven reserves for all of the U.S. stand at 21 billion, this cache of oil could substantially increase the overall tally for proven reserves, no doubt about it.

Compared to oil shale or Canadian tar sands, this is pretty negligible, however. Both reserves will probably yield well in excess of a billion barrels of petroleum eventually, though the case for oil shale is not nearly as well established as is that for Canadian tar sands. Also, be aware that the U.S. consumes roughly 20 million barrels per day! That means that every 50 days a billion barrels disappear. In that context Alaskan oil doesn’t mean terribly much.

An even more important fact to keep in mind is that U.S. oil production has been steadily declining since 1969. That opening up the Alaska Wildlife Preserve will reverse this decline and re-establish energy independence is highly unlikely, so unlikely that determined advocacy for this position should be sufficient to destroy the credibility of the advocate.

Bush and Cheney both worked in the oil industry and make a habit of surrounding themselves with its representatives. They simply must know that drilling in Alaska is not a real energy policy. The recently disgraced Tom DeLay openly stated that a victory in Alaska would be a deathblow to the environmental movement, and undoubtedly such considerations underlie the Bush program, but that still leaves unanswered the question of how they expect to meet the needs of consumers in the face of steadily rising crude oil prices.

One would have thought that Bush would have acted very aggressively to put Iraqi oil fields into full production, doing whatever it took to stop the sabotage, up to and including displacing the entire population from the region of the southern oil field and establishing a de facto American colony like the old Panama Canal Zone. That he hasn’t done so we find curious.

Rising oil prices more than any single factor have eroded Bush’s once tremendous popularity and put at jeopardy Republican control of the House. One would assume that George Bush would respond to this danger with decisive action, but we see no evidence whatever of a plan.

Of course, the Administration’s saber rattling against Iran which possesses oil resources approximately equal to those of Iraq could be a prelude to an invasion of that nation as well and a subsequent claim upon its vast oil fields, but unless Bush greatly augments U.S. ground forces, it seems unlikely that he would enjoy any more success in tapping Iranian oil than he has in recovering Iraqi crude.

It could be that we have greatly misjudged the American people, however. Quite possibly a campaign to prohibit same sex marriage, restore the teaching of creationism in public school, and criminalize abortion will sufficiently energize the populace that they will willingly endure any and all economic problems occasioned by the end of cheap oil. That may in fact be the energy policy of this Administration. And it may work.

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