Drilling our energy woes away

Conservatives deny that there is an energy crises, well atleast when it comes to America’s own capability of energy independence in oil production. To conservatives, the problem with the rising costs of at the pump lies purely with government bureaucracy, overregulation, restrictions of drilling on American soil. Considering that crude oil production in the United States has already reached it’s peak more than 30 years ago (I will be discussing this further down), this should be all the more evident of why crude oil is slowely becoming costly and scarce on American land. But apparently facts get in the way of political convenience.

Remember the 2008 elections? That historical presidential election? It was the first time Sarah Palin came onto the national scene as the vice presidential candidate on the McCain ticket. When the issue of America’s over dependence of crude oil was addressed to Palin what was her and her fellow conservatives response? Drill baby drill! Drill all our issues away! If crude oil resources were depleted in one area, move on to the next they said! Of course the problem of crude costs and energy dependence is far more complex than this, but essentially conservatives aren’t having any of it. To them there is plenty of crude oil below American soil! We’ve just got to give more trust to the ‘free market’ and those giant energy corporations apparently.

After a lengthy debate I found myself in the other day I’ve taken the liberty to address the arguments laid out by conservatives over the matter of energy independence. Through this article I will explain just why this issue is not as simple as just opening up land to more drilling. I will be discussing why the ‘drill baby drill’ movement is akin to a crack addict choosing to go for a last fix instead of rehabilitation. While most conservatives clearly aren’t interested in the truth, there are many out there in search of the facts. I’m here to lay out my positions (with sources and references of course) so that you can make up your own mind over this issue.

Let’s just look at the facts concerning the global vs U.S consumption of crude first. As of 2009, the total global consumption of crude per day amounted to more than 82 million barrels. The United States alone consumed something of around 18.5 million barrels per day, that’s 22 percent of global consumption. Considering that the United States constitutes less than 4 percent of the global population, yet holds more than double the demand for crude of that of China, we can see just how demanding and dependent the United States has become on crude production. The majority of crude oil consumption in the United States is foreign sourced, around 60 percent in 2009 alone (2).  So less than half of all crude oil consumed domestically is sourced within the United States itself. This has been decreasing steadily over the years. In 1973 for example, over 9 million barrels of domestic crude oil was produced in the United States and consumed domestically, which at that time assumed 65 percent of total U.S oil consumption. By 2002, 6.7 million barrels were domestically produced per day, down to 47%, more than half sourced abroad.  So what does this all say? Well the statistics by the least indicates that the United States had already exceeded its capacity to fully satisfy its own hunger for crude oil. The data demonstrates that peak oil became a reality in the United States by the end of the 70’s. The United States has clearly exceeded its ability to be self reliant when it comes to crude production. What’s more, demand for crude oil in the United States has been on the increase while domestic production had experienced a decrease. The United States consumed around 15 million barrels of crude back in 73’, today demand exceeds more than 18 million barrels.

So exactly what will it take in order for the United States to be energy independent? Well to starters, American crude oil producers will have to more than double their capacity of crude production to meet demand, which will require them to find new sources of crude oil reserves in addition to restricting them from selling abroad. Domestic crude producers will need to find new sources that will not only satisfy the current oil consumption of the United States in the long term but also keep up with the increase in demand for years to come (due to circumstances such as population growth). It’s a tall order when one looks at it from logical perspective, but logic has unfortunately become an inconvenience for those on the rightwing. Exactly where are we going to source all this crude from? Well conservatives will at least point us towards certain areas where they seem to think we’ll solve our energy woes over night.

The Brakken field

One area argued to help lead America out of an energy crises is the Brakken field, an area located in North Dakota. In 2008 the United States Geological survey estimated that in that area alone, there could be as many as 4.3 billion barrels (4) of crude oil reserves just waiting to be touched. This made headlines in 2007 and 2008 at a time when the price of crude reached historic highs. At first glance 4.3 billion barrels sounds like a problem solver to America’s energy woes, however with that amount the United States would only last a good 70 days or so, assuming demand remained constant. If we only relied 10% of our crude oil consumption on the Brakken field, we’re looking at around 2 years, tops. Not exactly the solution we were seeking right? Billionaire Harold Hamm, one of the strongest advocates for drilling in the Brakken field and the largest investor claimed that the USG estimate of that area was too low, he made an estimate of around 24 billion barrels in reserves. But even with this amount, this will only account for a year or two worth of US consumption, at 10 percent, between 10-20 years, these are not long term solutions to America’s energy woes. It should be further noted that drilling has already started in the Brakken field. Some 400,000 barrels are already being pumped annually so those ‘reserves’ are already in decline anyway.

The Arctic Wildlife Refuge

The Arctic Wildlife Refuge otherwise known as ANWR is another area in the United States being hyped up for its potential to satisfy the needs and demands of American citizens. It caused controversy in particular, 2008, when it was suggested that drilling be carried out there. To critics, the idea of drilling in an area designated as a wildlife refuge demonstrated a lack of regard for the environment and blind support for corporate greed. To those whom supported the opening of drilling permits in ANWR, the majority of whom were conservative, insisted that the area was really just a wasteland and that national interests outweighed ‘minor’ environmental concerns. Putting aside the ethics in debate here, let’s just look at the stats. In 1998, the USG actually did a survey on crude reserves in ANWR and they came up with a likely estimate of between 5.7-16 billion barrels (5). So how long exactly would this last? Well if we stretch consumption out, we’re looking at up to two and half years if this crude was just going to the domestic market. At 10% we’re looking at around 25 years, assuming that the crude reserves turn out to be the highest estimation by the USG.

Total crude reserves?

In total the USG estimated that there could be as much as 120 billion barrels worth of recoverable crude oil left in the United States. Even if there was a chance of tapping into all that crude oil, we’d have at maximum 21 years do rely on domestic crude production, assuming that consumption demands didn’t increase with time, and that this included the depletion of crude reserves (which would defeat the purpose of the goverment having reserves in the first place). So really, how can simply opening up more land to drilling be a solution at all? And take to mind that these are just estimates.

Did you hear? There’s trillions of barrels worth of crude oil lying below the Rockies!

You’ve probably heard this claim going around the intertoobs, that there’s trillions of barrels worth of oil lying below the Rockies, good to last America two centuries, the end to all our woes! This is probably the more recent argument to come up from the ‘drill baby drill’ crowd. Apparently there’s hidden shale oil lying below the Rockies in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, around an estimated 2 trillion barrels of the stuff. The (very partisan) Rand Corporation did a study and came up with figure of around 800 billion barrels in reserves (7), the (again the very partisan) Heritage foundation stated there could be as much as 1.3 trillion barrels (12) hidden there. Finally the USGS gave an estimate of more than 1.5 trillion barrels estimated over that area for shale oil (13). Either way, the estimated barrels all point to the fact that the United States would be able to last at least a century using the shale in that region alone….

If only it were that straight forward……

It’s important that we clarify some factors here concerning the hidden shale oil in the Rockies. Firstly it’s called ‘shale oil’ for a reason, it isn’t crude oil for starters, it isn’t the same stuff we typically put into our tanks on a daily basis. In many cases it’s not even scientifically considered in same light as crude oil. Shale oil is often referred to as ‘kerogen’, and it is locked away in shale sedimentary rock formations that require a significant amount of energy and heat to extract (6). Kerogen is really a mix of organic chemical compounds that can be converted into a liquid fuel similar to that of crude oil (9) and even if it is already converted and used as a source of fuel, it is done on a very small scale. Shale oil is by all means an alternative or substitute energy to crude, it sits among the other none-renewable energies such as coal and nuclear fussion. So is there trillions or trillions worth of oil in the Rockies to last us a good century or so? Well it depends on what you’re implying because if we’re talking about crude oil reserves then no, there isn’t trillions upon trillions of crude oil reserves sitting below the Rockies. Regarding the investment and utilization of oil shale reserves (I recommend you to read the entire source sometime):

the term reserves is widely misused and misunderstood; what really matters isn’t how much oil is in the ground, but how quickly that oil can be produced and how much it’ll cost. The media often fuels the hyperbole by stating that a particular field contains oil equivalent to a year or more of US crude oil consumption; the comparison is meaningless because it will typically take several decades for that recoverable oil to be produced even under the most optimistic scenarios.

Here’s a more realistic assessment for oil shale: If crude prices remain elevated for a prolonged period, prompting an increase in oil shale development, it’s possible that production will hit 150,000 barrels per day by the late 2020s. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that US oil shale will produce 144,000 barrels per day by 2030. That might be meaningful for a few companies, but it’s hardly a game-changer.


There was never really a secret concerning the wealth of shale oil reserves lying below the Rockies. Investment and attention to the shale oil reserves in the Rockies has been floating around since the 70’s, and attention of the area can even be dated as far back as the 1920’s. Ironically it was under Carter, the ‘worst president in history’ through the eyes of conservatives, whom first lead and promoted the national investment and exploration of shale oil in that area. President Bush in 2008 signed an executive order opening around 2 million acres of federal land across Wyoming, Utah and Colorado to be leased and exploited by oil producers (9). After all those years you’d figure that corporations like Exxon and Shell would have come up with a viable method of converting shale to a usable fuel on the same scale as that of crude oil, right?

In May 1980, Exxon Mobil (XOM) acquired Atlantic Richfield’s 60% interest in the Colony Oil Shale project in Colorado for $400 million. At the time, the purchase was one step in an ambitious plan to invest $5 billion in oil shale development, a sum worth more than $11 billion in 2009 dollars.

further down the article:

The company’s most optimistic internal projections showed oil shale generating as much as 8 million barrels per day by 2010.

And while Exxon was the largest company to invest in oil shale, it wasn’t the only player in the industry. Unocal, Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.A), Amoco and Ashland Oil, among others, all had projects in the region. In fact, even the US government was involved when Congress approved a $14 billion package of incentives for synthetic fuels development in 1980. Land values in the region sky-rocketed as did local salaries; the towns Exxon created were reminiscent of the Gold Rush boom towns of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

But almost two years later Exxon abruptly pulled out of the Colony Shale project, writing off more than $1 billion of its investment. The sudden about-face on shale turned boom towns across rural Colorado into latter-day ghost towns. The expensive mistake was an embarrassment for Exxon and among the greatest strategic miscalculations in the industry’s history.


Elliot Gue who wrote the article above explains rather well the problem with shale oil or oil shale production. While there is alot of potential to shale oil, it has a history of being economically costly both long and short term. As well, shale oil takes a considerable amount of energy to produce. There are still trials on shale oil in the Rockies going on to this day, with Royal Dutch Shell using extraction technologies in Colorado at this very moment to try and effectively and efficiently convert the shale oils to the level as that of Crude. By the sounds of it, years of investment has not amounted to much. It is apparent that at current capacity, the ability for oil companies to create sufficient domestic shale oils to curb America’s dependence on foreign oil exports just isn’t there.

The above chart is a good illustration of the different fossel fuels and crude substitutes. Sourced from Gordon, D. (2012). Understanding unconventional Oil, this is not my work.

At the current method, shale oil needs to be mined in it’s rocky form, transported and heated to around 8500 F (11) to convert it to a comparable alternative to crude oil. It can be done, but at a cost, and at a significant amount of energy and waste, around 3 times that of crude oil with current technology. After years of investment, there just had not been technologies developed to tap into Shale oils as there are crude. I don’t think I’m going to bother explaining the environmental impact, because evidently the ‘drill baby drill’ fans won’t have any of it, the ‘environment’ has never been a convincing argument for conservatives regardless. The environment has never stopped oil companies as well. Since that 2011 gulf spill, Americans have mostly forgotten about the environmental impact it had, considering that more oil rigs have formed in the area than before the spill (10), and the little media and public attention since. Shale oil as explained before is not the same as crude oil, it is considered an alternative to crude (11), just like coal, just like natural gas and so forth. It’s a non-renewable alternative to crude, but an alternative energy nonetheless. By arguing that more investment should be made toward extracting and developing the shale oil reserves hidden below the Rockies, it is comparable to making the same arguments for other alternative energies. Essentially you’re admitting to the reality that crude oil reserves has depleted on American soil.

More excuses

I’ve come across a number of arguments from conservatives that tend to stray away from the core issue over the need for alternative energies. It seems that the idea of moving a country to focus on cleaner, alternative and renewable energies somehow doesn’t fit well with the established mainstream conservative narrative. Not only will the folks to the rightwing deny that there is an issue at all, but they will turn the issue around and make it a deeply personal argument against the person arguing for. Maybe they believe there’s some hippie agenda to get everybody to drive a Toyota Prius? I’m fairly sure it’s not all that far off when we look into it. I don’t know, but I’ve come across a number to notable strawman arguments that only serve to distract away from the core issue here. As much of an environmental, cultural and political hazard crude oil has become in this world, I have yet to come across anybody, any liberal, who will deny crude oil’s impact, importance, and society’s reliance on it. Arguing that there’s this personal hatred of crude oil serves just as a distraction from the core argument, that crude is becoming increasingly limited over the years, and that our dependence on it has been the reasoning behind the thousands of deaths, wars, and political instability that have fallen upon the globe. I once found myself in a forum with just one such individual, whom, after I made my points concerning the need for focus on alternative energies, out of the blue he decided to list for me all the products and things that involved the crucial ingredient of crude oil. He was obviously implying that I held this personal hatred towards crude oil, which is a strange argument to make and one that took me by surprise. How can you get the message across when the issue of energy dependence has become such a deep, personal and politically fuelled matter?

It is true that the United States has experienced a number of fuel crises before, the most notable one was back in the late 70’s following the Iranian revolution. Crude prices did recover later into the 80’s. However this doesn’t dismiss the reality of increasing demands for crude and evidence of decreasing reserves, in particular here in the United States, as demonstrated in this article. What’s more, just putting aside the fact that the United States is growing in its dependence on crude consumption globally, there is the negative influence and political instability that crude oil is causing. The Iraq war for example was evidently about oil and had little to do with the political problems or threat that country posed. As the result of the 2003 invasion, the United States lost more than 3,000 American lives, and more than $800 billion in cost to the American tax payer. Then there is simple denial, denial that there is any issue.

There’s another argument against the need to invest in alternative energies now. This idea that either technology will develop over time naturally to curb our reliance on crude oil. This is the same case for those who argue in favour of shale oil, stating that technologies will either be developed soon or are already developed but just not utilised sufficiently. Competitive alternatives would end the multi-billion dollar corporations that keep the population at mercy on energy dependence, it would end for the most part our involvement in the middle east by bringing men and women soldiers back to the land where they belong, with their families. Instead of the government giving billions of dollars (8) in subsidies to oil corporations that continue to profit at the expense of the environment, with little contribution to society other than to continue feeding the American addiction, we could be investing that money on research that will lead America and other countries into independence, true independence of renewable energies, empowering citizens for choice.

Finally, there are those arguments that target renewable energies themselves. My favourite is the argument that wind turbines kill birds… which is hypocritical considering the negative environmental impact that oil drilling has caused the marine and land wildlife over years. Do wind turbines cause harm to animals though? Well yes, as with any man made structure that is active, there will be some form of wildlife casualty over time. It is estimated that there are around 40,000 animals casualties as the result of wind turbines yearly in the United States. However, there are an estimated 60-80 million animal casualties as the result of Automobiles a year, around 130,000 million animal casualties as the result of windows, yes windows, and another 40 million animal casualties as the result of lighting towers (14). Of course, maybe the point of this argument is to point to those in support of renewable energy as hypocrites because they assume that all liberals whom are supporters of alternative energies are crazy old PETA loving hippies, which is far from reality. Although animal welfare for me personally is a factor towards energy alternatives, it is not the core issue, and in no way do I deny the inevitability of animal casualties to man made structures. Such a thing will occur inevitably, we don’t have control over this reality. Then of course there’s the argument that solar power panels look ugly and so forth. With these kinds of petty arguments against moving this country to more renewable and empowering energies, there’s not much more you can do to convince a person who takes this position. Evidently the entire debate to them is motivated by politics, rather than reason.


(1)   http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/ene_oil_con-energy-oil-consumption

(2)   http://www.ngoilgas.com/news/us-foreign-oil/ 

(3)   http://www.wtrg.com/EnergyCrisis/index.html

(4)   http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=1911

(5)   http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/fs-0028-01/fs-0028-01.pdf

(6)   http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/blogs/republican/oil-shale-analysis-0811

(7)   http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5424033

(8)   http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/11/17/idUS196393690720111117

(9)   http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=can-oil-shale-provide-powern

(10)                       http://www.nola.com/news/gulf-oil-spill/index.ssf/2011/02/more_oil_drilling_rigs_are_in.html

(11)                       http://www.oilcrisis.com/youngquist/altenergy.htm

(12)                       http://www.heritage.org/research/lecture/oil-shale-toward-a-strategic unconventional-fuels-supply-policy

(13)                       http://energy.usgs.gov/OilGas/UnconventionalOilGas/OilShale.aspx

(14)                       http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/wind-turbine-kill-birds.htm





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2 Responses to Drilling our energy woes away

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    True, true. Oil is a dirty game, and it never goes so far as we thought it would — but there is something else you should be aware of. Since early 2011, the U.S. has been exporting oil. Our production is significant. During the Obama administration, oil exploration has risen dramatically, as have drilling and production.

    But do the conservatives and Drill Babies ever acknowledge it?

    No. The fact is that we have done what they asked, and poked holes all over America. We dramatically increased oil and gas exploration and production. But according to the numbers you cite, all that despoiling of America did nothing toward making us independent of foreign oil.

    Is there a moral to this tale? Are we living in a Red Queen world, with regard to oil?

    • thankyou for taking the time to read one of my articles Ed I really appreciate it. I agree, Obama has opened up more drilling, but the truth is an inconvenience to some. There is so much misinformation out there that it would take me some time to turn this all into articles but I am determined to. I’ll make a require to add you to my blogroll.

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