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Lynn Voedisch Headshot

The Thrill of the Drill

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(Editor's Note: For another look at the calls to, "Drill here, drill now," see McCain's Offshore Drilling Hogwash.)

John McCain and Sarah Palin stand convinced that drilling now for domestic oil is paramount to bridge the gap to an energy-independent future. Even Congressional Democrats have given up on a 25-year-old ban on drilling for oil off the United State's coasts. However, don't expect to see gasoline prices take a sudden dive any time soon. That's because in the petroleum business reducing our dependence on foreign oil is a complicated process.

Although the Republicans chanted "Drill, baby, drill" at their convention in Minneapolis, and many believe oil drilling to be a panacea against our energy ills, the USA's natural oil reserves are difficult to get to, will take years to tap, and even at peak usage won't last very long.

"By 2016, drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf will end up producing zero barrels of oil at current rates of usage, " said Marchant Wentworth, legislative representative for clean energy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Oil companies could continue to draw oil from U.S. locations longer if minimum fuel standards are put in place," Wentworth added. But don't count on it. Congress has been dragging its feet on fuel efficiency standards for years.

Will an added supply of domestic crude bring down the price of oil, as Republicans such as John Boehner of Ohio proclaimed? "Opening up the Outer Continental Shelf will have no effect to a minuscule effect on gas prices," Wentworth said.

The reason is that America's oil is literally a drop in the bucket compared to worldwide reserves of oil. The United States buys more than 13.2 million barrels of crude oil a day. More than half of our supply of crude oil is from OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) and the rest is from countries such as Canada, Mexico and Brazil (source: the CIA World Fact Book).

We use almost all the oil we pump for ourselves, exporting an average of only 1 million barrels a day (source: CIA World Fact Book). The amount of oil that exists out in the Atlantic and Pacific shelves is not thought to be significant. The Interior Department estimates that there are 18 billion barrels of recoverable oil beneath the coastal waters. The oil in the controversial ANWR reserve in Alaska is considered to be much smaller, although no one knows by how much.

Oil prices are, essentially, set by OPEC. Even non-OPEC countries tend to follow prevailing price trends. Supply and demand alone don't determine prices as there are national interests to be considered which hike prices higher than they would be in a free market. Since it's highly unlikely that Americans will be "fillin' 'er up" with all-American gasoline but rather with a blend of various fuels from many countries, the price will most likely remain closer to world prices than anything the U.S. Congress can dream about.

"The only way we can reduce prices is if we start now to reduce demand and get more efficient cars on line," Wentworth said.

The reason the Democrats finally conceded defeat on the drilling ban even though their party platform is against drilling and for alternative energy sources is due to public opinion on rising gas prices. They also wanted to pass an underlying bill that included the Pentagon budget, $24 billion in aid for flood and hurricane victims, and also to keep the government functioning past this month's start of the 2009 budget year.

What about all the renewable energy that's been so highly touted by everyone from the Democrats to energy baron T. Boone Pickens? It's still out there. Even John McCain devotes a large part of his energy program, "The Lexington Project," to such things as a $300 million prize for a cost-effective electric car battery, and "clean coal" development. Barack Obama touts everything from spending $150 billion over 10 years to develop alternative energy to giving tax credits to put 1 million hybrid vehicles on the road by 2015.

Many hybrid cars are already on the roads. In a recent news item reporters found that McCain had 13 cars, all conventional, and Obama has one car, a hybrid Ford Escape. The Toyota Prius was the first hybrid on the market but automakers are falling all over themselves trying to put out hybrids that run on both gasoline and electricity.

Alternative energy is about more than new automobiles. Wind power is something we can capture right now and it is being used in fields and off remote shores. "Wind power is here and now. Even the Bush Administration says we could get 20 percent of our electricity with wind," Wentworth said.

According to T. Boone Pickens, the plains states of the U.S.A. are the "Saudi Arabia of Wind." Once windmill generators are installed, a one-time expense, the U.S. would have access to free energy for centuries, Pickens says.

Natural gas is also a fuel that is common in some parts of the country but fairly new in other areas. We haven't even begun to tap all the natural gas available in this country. Compressed natural gas is 90 percent cleaner than oil or coal which makes it a much sought-after fuel for homeowners and factories.

Solar power is available everywhere but the means to harness it need to be developed and a market must be created. Electricity companies are interested but individuals can fit their own homes with solar panels and produce their own energy for free. All it takes is planning and ingenuity.

That's the future of energy in this country and the drumbeat of future thinkers who talk about maintaining freedom from foreign energy markets. It's sometimes hard to attain and often prohibitively expensive but those who seek energy independence say it's worth it to cut ties with price-gouging OPEC sheiks.

Drilling for more oil does little more than buy the United States a few more years of extra fuel and even the Republicans in Congress know that. Look for the Democrats to ask for limits on drilling next year and for Republicans to challenge any drilling bans.

The thrill of the drill is still too tempting to pass up and the battle is likely to rage for a least a few years to come.