My office phone rang and a chirpy 20-something calling from the 514 area code was on the line. A short time into the call, I knew what it was: an oil industry-sponsored opinion survey that smelled like a push poll.
With $4-per-gallon gasoline prices drawing near, what better time, in the industry's view, to make a renewed push to open up Americas coastal waters to drilling rigs. A poll designed to show that the voters support more drilling is a predictable part of the lobbying and PR strategy that is gathering steam.
The questioner tossed a lot of industry arguments my way e.g. much of the oil that we use originates in North America, oil company profits are not out of line with other industries, scads of untapped oil lie beneath the coastal waters.
She asked me to rate the arguments' importance if they were verifiably true. For each one, I said, "not at all important."
Part of me was simply having bloody-minded fun by turning up my nose at each piece of bait the survey trolled in front of me. But my serious half would have answered those questions the same way.
That's because our economic, environmental, and security problems with oil are rooted more in how much we use rather than the amount we produce domestically.
Over the past century, we wove oil deeply into the fabric of our economy on the premise that it was cheap, abundant, and secure. And for many years, it was.
But not anymore.
Its not cheap anymore because there is more demand for oil. Even as the U.S. economy softens, Chinese and Indian consumption growth shows no sign of slowing. We are plugged into a world oil market that is influenced by demand growth and supply disruptions outside our borders, neither of which we can control. More offshore drilling will not fix that.
Another price of high oil dependence is carbon emissions. That price is not monetized now, but it will be, no matter who is elected president this fall.
Oil is still relatively abundant, but as older, easy-to-produce fields wind down, opening new fields will cost more because theyre in difficult places, both geologically and politically.
Finally, energy security concerns will not go away, even if we dot our coastlines with drilling rigs. With less than 3 percent of the worlds proven oil reserves, America cannot add enough new supplies to dramatically change the world oil markets dynamics.
The largest reserves are still held in Middle Eastern and other OPEC countries. Between now and 2030, OPECs share of global oil production is projected to rise nearly 24 percent, to more than half, according to the International Energy Agencys 2007 World Energy Outlook.
Yes, America could obtain liquid fuel from coal and shale, but we would still depend on the world oil market for at least half our fuel two decades from now, even under a Department of Energy scenario of high prices that reduce demand and improve the economics of unconventional liquid fuels. And thats leaving aside the severe carbon emission and water consumption issues that coal-based liquids and shale raise.
An energy economy based on near-exclusive dependence on oil for transportation is not sustainable. We could hold stubbornly to an oil-based energy economy, but we would have to ignore the climate impacts and kid ourselves that more drilling hither and yon will end our exposure to fuel price run-ups and dodgy petro-regimes.
Or, we could start looking elsewhere for answers towards a portfolio that includes greater efficiency, more fuel diversity, electric vehicles, and more transportation choices.
Thats what I would have told the chirpy opinion pollster if she had only asked.
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