As both the right and left engage in their favorite pastime – The Blame Game – when it comes to assigning responsibility for the mess we’re in with gas prices, I’ve been doing a slow burn about both sides’ singular avoidance of placing blame on the one group who truly deserves it.
Every red blooded American who has voted over the past 30 years – Republican and Democrat – for federal lawmakers who promised, in effect, that this day would come bears the primary responsibility for high gas prices.
We the voters made concious and deliberate choices to elect presidents, members of Congress, and state legislators who ran on a platform that condemned nuclear power and swore to oppose the building of any more plants. If, over the last 30 years, we had replaced the majority of our oil and coal burning plants with nuclear powered generators, we could have saved about half a million bbl a day or 5% of the total imports of 10 million bbl a day.
That doesn’t sound like much but the “speculation premium” added to the current price of oil – about $40 according to the Wall Street Journal – is based on a perceived tightening of the market by 2-3%. There’s a good chance that premium wouldn’t even exist with the savings realized by using safe, clean nuclear power.
We, the voters, also made conscious and deliberate choices in electing everyone from members of Congress to local selectmen who would oppose the building of new refineries. “Not in my backyard” was the refrain of the last 30 years which has seen exactly zero refineries built in this country and 50 refineries closed down. Incredibly, we import about 3.5 million bbl of finished petroleum products every day. This lack of refining capacity has put pressure on our ability to stockpile gas, deisel, and other products that would also dampen speculation and give us a much needed cushion in supply that would stabilize oil prices.
We the voters also made conscious and deliberate choices to elect members of Congress, governors, and state legislators who promised not to drill offshore of all but a handful of states. How much oil is there just waiting for the drill bit? The government estimates around 20 billion bbl which sounds like a lot but only represents the amount of oil we would use in about 3 years. But other estimates from oil companies and other energy experts puts the amount of oil offshore considerably higher. The point isn’t that it would supply ALL of our needs for just a few years. It could never be pumped out that fast anyway. But no one doubts that it could make a sizable dent in our current 10 million bbl a day fix we need from other countries.
A word about the Bakken field which has been receiving some press lately (for obvious reasons). There is a huge disparity between government estimates of how much oil is under South Dakota and Montana and how much there is according to independent energy groups. The government says 21 billion bbl. Other scientific studies put the number at 500 billion bbls. As contrast, Saudi Arabia has proven reserves of about 260 billion bbls.
What has scientists and drillers so excited about this huge field of oil is that recent advances in oil drilling technology may make a large part of that field available for exploitation. To give you an idea, as recently as 1995, the government claimed the field contained only 150 million bbls of recoverable oil. To raise that estimate to 21 billion bbl astonishing.
The key is a breakthrough in drilling technology known as “sideways drilling.” Apparently, most of the oil is unavailable unless that technology is used to exploit the find. At the moment, no one knows how much of this light, sweet crude could contribute to our stocks of oil. But they are finding ways to extract more and more of the find all the time which can only bode well for the future.
This doesn’t help our immediate pain which brings me back to where the blame should lie for this fiasco. We voters made perfectly rational and logical choices to elect politicians who refused to drill offshore, in ANWR, on federal lands – anywhere one spotted owl or caribu might be affected.
There is nothing wrong with this, I might add. There are many among us who continually pat themselves on the back for being good stewards of the land, fighting the good fight against greedy oil companies who would rape the land and coastline in the name of profit.
These same people are much less willing to pat themselves on the back for getting us into our current dilemma. Again, there is nothing basically wrong with being in favor of protecting the environment at all costs – the most obvious cost being cheap gasoline. The question is why are we not accepting responsibility for what is clearly something that is our collective fault.
It has been proven that environmental protection is a luxury that only rich nation’s can afford. We have been willing to pay this price both because it is the right thing to do and because we could afford a small loss in economic growth in exchange for cleaner air and water as well as protecting wildlife.
But times change. The world is changing. And unless we can find a way to balance legitimate concerns about the environment with our need for more oil, the present situation will continue and get worse. This means that environmentalists have to acknowledge that the policies they support are leading us to ruin while the pro-drilling crowd must acknowledge that we can’t go drilling everywhere there’s a drop of oil to be found.
And we the voter have to start electing politicians to office who are realistic about what needs to be done. Can we maintain our committment to a clean environment while increasing our domestic oil supply? I think it can be done – if the political will to do it can be found.