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The Energy Trap

You can't have an Arctic refuge, cheap gasoline and guzzlers, too. Something has got to give.

March 25, 2001|Gregg Easterbrook | Gregg Easterbrook is a senior editor for the New Republic and BeliefNet.com and a visiting fellow in economics at the Brookings Institution

WASHINGTON — Move over, tax cuts--it's time for oil politics to ooze to the fore. "We're short on energy, and this administration is concerned about it," President George W. Bush said last week. Bush, a former oilman, has asked Vice President Dick Cheney, also a former oilman, to head a task force whose aim is to devise a new national energy strategy. The two favor petroleum exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, something environmentalists fervently oppose. A nasty congressional and public-relations fight is about to begin.

On March 13, the president announced that his administration would not regulate greenhouse gases, because that might raise energy prices. It was Bush's first broken campaign promise, though one quietly made, and is unlikely to go away as an issue. Rolling blackouts have returned to California, and the president says they stem in part from too many restrictions on energy exploration; Bush is expected soon to propose easing such rules. Administration officials are privately condemning former President Bill Clinton for having no coherent energy policy, a fair enough charge, though Clinton's approach was to leave energy supply to market forces, which Republicans normally praise in other circumstances. Lots of oil talk is coming, and it may not be polite.

What's coming as well is a classic interest-group duel of reciprocal blather. Pro-oil forces will say that drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the sole hope of preventing new gasoline lines, and this surely is untrue. Enviros will say that the Arctic refuge cannot be drilled without horrifying ecological harm, and this isn't true, either. Sensible, median proposals will get cast aside in the rush to see who can condemn whom most loudly.

Just how much is oil drilling in the refuge really likely to accomplish? The standard estimate, from the U.S. Geological Survey, is that the refuge's coastal plain contains 3.2 billion barrels of petroleum accessible at about today's price; optimists hope the refuge may eventually yield up to five times as many. These are significant amounts, though considerably less than the totals for the current Alaska North Slope oil fields that began at Prudhoe Bay. If the optimistic projections turn out correct, the Arctic refuge may hold enough petroleum to cover U.S. needs for between two and three years. If the Geological Survey figure proves correct, there will be sufficient oil to supply U.S. petroleum consumption for roughly six months at current rates.

Opponents use the above statistic to suggest that because the Arctic refuge may turn out to hold less than a year's total supply, its production would be irrelevant. Hardly. This volume would not all emerge in one burst, but over a period of decades. Lots of oil fields in lots of places are needed for the huge volumes of petroleum that America guzzles. To argue that Arctic refuge oil does not matter because it cannot single-handedly solve petroleum-supply needs is like saying there's no point in a farmer planting a field because no single farm can possibly feed the nation.

The real flaw in the argument for drilling the refuge is not that 3.2 billion barrels does not matter--surely, it does--but that from an energy-policy standpoint, oil-conservation measures can produce a better effect faster. Improving the gasoline mileage of the nation's new vehicles by just three miles per gallon would displace more petroleum than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is expected to produce. According to calculations by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a more ambitious but technologically feasible goal of raising new-vehicle average fuel economy to 39 miles per gallon over the next decade would displace more than 15 times as much petroleum as the refuge is expected to produce. Though technology exists to improve gasoline mileage without any sacrifice in the way people drive, federal miles-per-gallon standards have not changed in 12 years. Given legal sanction to build oil-wasting sports utility vehicles, auto makers have done so. In turn, because SUVs have pushed up U.S. gasoline consumption in the past decade, supply has become tight and pump prices have risen.

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