11 July 2008

Energy: Drilling for Oil Offshore and in ANWR; Has the Time Come?

Okay, brace yourself. If you're a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist, you're not going to like what I'm about to write. I'm not sure you'll like it if you're on the other extreme either, but what the hell.

I'm wondering whether it may be time to reconsider drilling offshore, and to take a hard look at whether the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) can be developed for oil in an environmentally favorable way.

I'm not saying we should go ahead with either, but I do think we need to put both considerations on the table, put aside our emotions, look at the real impacts, weigh the options, and then decide.

There are several things we need to factor into our consideration:

1. Our dependence upon fossil fuels is not going away any time soon.

2. There are, according to some sources familiar with the situation, relatively abundant remaining sources of fossil fuels, offshore and on land. Most agree they will take too long to develop to have immediate impact, but they may extend the time-frame for alternatives to replace fossil fuels. And with prices what they are now, it's looking like now may be the time when these sources are actually viable.

3. It is not known whether ANWR is a viable source; there is little baseline data with which to make such a call. Some say the oil industry may be betting on the fact that developing ANWR will allow the life of Alaska's pipeline to extend beyond 2030, and make it more viable to recover smaller pools throughout the region.

4. Developing ANWR is likely to have little impact on today's prices. In a report last May, the Department of Energy estimated that it will result in a reduction of only 75 cents a barrel.

5. A recent study by the federal government's Energy Information Administration projects, in the best-case scenario, developing ANWR will engender a price reduction of around $1.44/barrel by 2027.

The same study claims drilling off the coasts of the US won't affect prices until 2030, as reported in the New York Times.

6. Global consumption of oil reached 85.2 million barrels a day in 2008, up from last year's 76.3 million. Another study, to be released this fall by the International Energy Agency (IEA), projects consumption will rise to 116 million barrels next year.

7. New techniques, such as directional drilling will continue to reduce the footprint per well-head on Alaska's North Slope, but there remains the issue of roads, housing, pipelines, and other facilities needed to bring the oil to market.

Those impacts could still be huge in ANWR, which is used by polar bears, caribou, and other animals as they search for places to give birth. (Birth is the most vulnerable stage in the life-cycle of some species.) Other biologists familiar with the area claim the stated impacts may be overdone.

As for the coasts, there are worthy concerns about impacts on human coastal communities, especially those that rely on fishing or tourism for their livelihoods. Our neighbors to the north and south have increased their off-shore development over the past decade with little or marginal impact on the environment.

8. New off-shore development will also take years to put in place.

9. Finally, there is a shortage of deep water drill-ships for offshore development, which are currently booked for the next five years, and we may be looking at a long time horizon with very little short-term impact.

Still, impact is impact, and while we're looking at alternative energy development, perhaps we need to consider how we will meet demand for fossil fuels while alternatives build momentum.

High demand, low supply rules the day. But if the benefits of off-shore and ANWR development are a long way off, is it worth the risk? Can we do without it? What if it can be demonstrated that the environmental impacts are negligible? What if, as Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska announced last week, we could put revenues in service of alternative energy projects?

I am not advocating a position for or against such development; I'm simply calling for a rational, emotion-free analysis before we move forward or rule it out.