Several days ago I had the pleasure of a dinner with my extended family at the Cheesecake Factory. As with most such gatherings, it took around fifteen minutes for this heartwarming reunion to spawn a light-hearted argument. On one side- me, saying that continuing to drill every-damn-where and ignore the growing untenability of our petroleum-dependent lifestyles might be a bad thing. And on the other side, members of my extended family. Their argument went something like this:
1. You’ll never convince the hard-toiling masses that some distant environmental concerns outweigh their need for cheap gas.
2. Alaska has enough oil to keep America going for like, 200 years. You hear this specific claim all over the place- often with the added factoid that Alaskan wonder-gas would cut our pump prices down to $1.50.
3. Energy independence means the terrorists have one less ball in their court.
It isn’t an overly nuanced take on the issue. But it is a hard one to argue with, if those are indeed the facts. Tens of millions of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. If you’re working construction or landscaping and hauling tools all day in a 14 mpg truck or slinging loads of kids around the suburbs in a 17 mpg SUV, the cost of gas is a big damn concern for you. Theoretical environmental worries don’t come close to real issues, like paying the rent and meeting your health insurance deductible.
So in today’s letter to the conservative parents of the world, I’m going to leave the environmental argument entirely out of it. They don’t much care what happens to ANWR and making that a pillar of any argument isn’t going to get you anywhere. Every claim you make about global warming or ecological ruin will be met by, ‘PEOPLE matter more than BEARS and we need cheap gas to make our economy GO again!’
Instead, let’s focus on their claims, and see if increased drilling really could make some of middle America’s problems go away.
Two hundred years of oil! That’s what we’ve heard is sitting, untapped, up there in Alaska. And interestingly enough, proponents of drilling in Wyoming make the exact same claim about that state’s oil holdings. Apparently we find big, round numbers much more compelling than accurate ones. So let’s fight back with some numbers of our own.
- 19,150,000. That’s the number of barrels of oil our nation uses every day.
- 6,989,750,000 That’s the number of barrels of oil our nation goes through in a year.
- 1,397,950,000,000 Assuming our oil need remains stable (it won’t) that’s how many barrels of oil Alaska would need to be hiding in order to fuel the USA for two centuries.
- 29,400,000,000. That’s the highest reputable estimate I’ve been able to find for the number of barrels in ANWR.
You may notice that number is much tinier than the one above it. In fact, ANWR only holds 1/47.5th of the oil we’d need to make it another two hundred years. In other words, all the fuel in Alaska would be enough to run America for 836 days. Two and a half years.
God, things really look different once you have the facts in hand, don’t they?
But hey, so Alaskan oil won’t be able to keep Jean-Luc Picard’s hummer topped off. That doesn’t mean it can’t cause a substantial drop in gas prices for us in the here and now. Smart science-y people are hard at work figuring out an alternative energy solution for the world. But we need to keep the cost of living reasonable while we wait, right? Drill baby, drill still makes sense if you just want to cut down on the cost of living.
And here, of course, is where the ugly, drunk cyclops of truth comes out to take a swing at the hobgoblin of rhetoric. Drilling for more gas does not decrease the price of gas. This isn’t an opinion, it isn’t a theory and it isn’t speculation. This is a fact, based on thirty-six goddamn years of studying the market. Don’t take my word for it- take the word of this gigantic AP study.
“A statistical analysis of 36 years of monthly, inflation-adjusted gasoline prices and U.S. domestic oil production by The Associated Press shows no statistical correlation between how much oil comes out of U.S. wells and the price at the pump.”
Balls on a baker’s forehead. It turns out the whole world is much bigger than America, and it also turns out that petroleum is a WORLD market. Which means the price you pay at Texaco has more to do with global politics, weather and geography than how much drilling we do. The U.S. only makes up about 11% of the world’s oil supply. If we were to increase our production by a staggering 50% (which might not even be possible) it wouldn’t get you more than a 10% drop in prices. And it might not even get that, because Iran could blockade the Strait of Hormuz or a few tankers could crash or a few million more people in China could get cars and we’d be right back to $4-per-gallon gas.
Only, y’know, all the polar bears would be dead and the eskimos would have to move to New Jersey. I know- I promised I wouldn’t bring the environment into it. Let’s jump past that. One source is almost never enough to convince the conservatives in my life of anything. A single study or scientific body can be biased. What if this ‘AP’ is in the pocket of George ‘the Antichrist’s drug dealer’ Soros?
It’s true that a single study could have any number of errors that bias it. But there isn’t just one source to this argument. Experts from the Cato Institute, Yale, MIT, Duke University and the Department of Energy are all in agreement. More drilling does not translate to lower gas prices.
So I’d guess that hypothetical blue-collar worker had better sell his F-150, buy a Prius and invest in a tow-hitch. That’s his best bet at cutting that fuel bill in half.