Syndicated cartoonist Ben Sargent drew a grandmotherly elephant sitting at a gas station. Granny GOP reads a fairy tale to a fuming motorist: “Is it true?’ asks Sally Consumer. “The very day we open the offshore and Arctic leases, we can supply all our own oil, and gasoline will be a dollar a gallon again?” “Oh yes!” says the Magic Petroleum Fairy.
With the nation mired in economic, military and environmental messes, Republicans have seized on a new campaign tactic: Blame high gasoline prices on Democrats who oppose unlimited drilling. The pitch is selling very well—it’s what Americans want to hear—but it’s still nonsense.
U.S. offshore drilling has little effect on gas prices. The actual culprits are increasing worldwide demand, the shrinking U.S. dollar, the decline of gigantic oil fields like Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar and Mexico’s Cantarell, commodity speculators, and oil cartels. U.S. auto companies and their Mighty Marketing Machine have contributed, brainwashing the nation that Manly Men and Safety Moms must drive around in monster trucks and SUVs.
Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge might eventually reduce gas prices two cents a gallon, according to the Bush administration’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), with another three- or four-cent drop from offshore drilling. But a 2007 EIA report concluded that opening the remaining U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) areas would have no real impact on supply or price before 2030, mostly because about 90 percent of the offshore area is already leased but not yet producing oil.
Even the most favorable numbers show that we can’t drill our way out of high prices. According to the Energy Information Administration, U.S. sources supply about 30 percent of the petroleum we use. OCS wells supply about 6 percent of U.S. production. If all areas were opened, OCS production would increase to only about 6.1 percent of U.S. production.
Multiply all these small percentages by each other, add estimated production from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and you realize that what the Bush/Big Oil forces are screaming for would increase supply by less than 1 percent of our use. Big whoop. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, Americans could save 20 to 40 cents per gallon by tuning up our vehicles and keeping the tires correctly inflated.
Even Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who was against offshore drilling before he was for it, admitted by late June that it wouldn't reduce prices.
The propaganda is flowing for two reasons—Republicans are trying to shift blame onto Democrats before the November elections, and petroleum companies think drilling on the last few protected areas closer to shore would yield higher profits.
The fantasy of lower gas prices is accompanied by other urban legends. One holds that Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling would only affect 2,000 acres. But the 2,000 acres only comprises the area covered by actual drill pads. It does not include land required for support services, airfields, hundreds of miles of access roads and pipeline facilities.
Drilling advocates claim offshore drilling is super-safe because Hurricane Katrina didn’t damage any Gulf of Mexico drilling platforms. But according to the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that keeps track of such events, 113 drilling platforms were destroyed, 146 spills occurred and 457 pipelines were damaged. These facts aren’t very comforting for what’s left of the East Coast fishing industry, Florida tourism and fishing, and West Coast businesses dependent on marine life.
Closer to home, consider the wonderfully named Tweeti Blancett, lifelong Republican. In 2004, Blancett’s family gave up ranching the land they’d cared for throughout six generations. Bureau of Land Management leases for oil and gas had resulted in so much pollution that their cows were dying and aborting from “toxic oil-field byproducts,” as cattle autopsy reports put it [Re: Newscity, "Tweeti's Lament," Feb. 12-18, 2004].
Then there’s the theory that the psychological effect of simply announcing wide-open drilling will bring prices down, brought to us by the same folks that said the “six-week” Iraq invasion was guaranteed to pay for itself while grateful Iraqis tossed flowers at our troops. This supposed psychological trigger didn’t affect prices when the Saudis recently announced they would increase production.
Drilling proponents dismiss solar photovoltaic energy as uneconomical. But that’s a straw man. Utility-scale electrical production uses concentrating solar thermal installations—fields of mirrors focused on solar receiver targets. Newer technologies for utility-scale solar energy storage have surpassed batteries.
All blame-gaming aside, high gas prices are causing real pain to lots of people. It would be nice to find a quick fix and a single villain. And we’ll probably eventually grub out every drop of oil, no matter how much it costs. But don’t be deceived that more drilling will lower your gas prices. Unfortunately, about the only realistic way to reduce the amount you spend on gas is to find some way—bikes, public transit, four-day workweeks, whatever—to drive less and to drive smarter.