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Pull your weight, America

By Thompson Ayodele
web posted May 9, 2011

Rising global demand for oil, coupled with continuing turmoil in the Middle East, is again causing US energy prices to spike. Regular gasoline has topped $4 a gallon in many states, and experts predict it could hit $5 per gallon this summer. Thousands of former oil patch workers remain unemployed, while the Obama Administration and Congress refuse to issue leases or drilling permits and, instead, make more and more oil and gas prospects off limits to exploration.

Meanwhile, the world is feted to the usual hand-wringing over how the United States can possibly feed its oil addiction in the years ahead, to keep its vehicle fleet moving and its struggling economy making progress. Cover more land with inefficient, unreliable wind turbines and solar panels? Convert more food crops into biofuels? Mine and burn more coal? Build more nuclear plants in the wake of Fukushima? 

At best, these "solutions" are decades in the future. Thus, the debate quickly comes back to America's own domestic oil production. To drill or not to drill?

Here some global perspective may help Americans find a way out of a blisteringly politicized discussion that generates, literally, more noise than movement.

As a Nigerian who is proud of his country's contributions to the world's oil supply – we are the single largest producer of oil in Africa, and one of the top five exporters to your nation – I wonder how it is that you Americans never seem to ask yourselves one fundamental question: What if all countries restricted access to their oil and gas reserves the way you do? Where would the world – let alone the United States – get its energy?

Among all the countries of the world, America alone refuses to tap oil and gas deposits that could fuel its vehicles and economy for many decades. Perhaps America's unwillingness to tap its oil reserves would be defensible if you were equally conservative with your consumption. But you're not.

You consume roughly a quarter of the world's oil. Meanwhile, you severely restrict or outright forbid access to vast oil bounties along the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, in Alaska's tundra and Arctic seas, throughout the Rocky Mountain West, and increasingly in eastern states where the Petroleum Age was launched in 1859.

If countries in the Middle East, South America or Africa adopted a similar attitude, America (and the world) would be left gasping for energy.

The arguments against tapping US oil reserves are familiar. Among the most popular is the refrain that there are barely enough "proven reserves" of oil beneath the US to last more than a few years. But that statistic is based on a set of criteria from the Society of Petroleum Engineers that is itself defined by the restrictions on exploration.

These "proved reserves" only count oil that is "commercially recoverable" under "current economic conditions, operating methods and government regulations" (emphasis added). In other words, "commercially recoverable" defines how much oil your government allows you to develop, not how much is actually there. Open more of your excellent oil prospects, and three years almost magically becomes three decades, or more. Ditto for your natural gas, shale gas and shale oil reserves.

Indeed, saying you shouldn't drill, because each well would produce "at most a few days" of oil, makes as much sense as saying you shouldn't conserve gasoline or improve energy efficiency, because each effort would save "at most a few minutes" of oil.

Another popular anti-drilling argument is that the environmental risks and impacts are unacceptable. Yes, careless mistakes caused a major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico one year ago. But that was the first significant spill since the Santa Barbara blowout in 1969, 41 years earlier – and each reduction in US domestic production increases the likelihood of another tanker running aground and spilling its cargo of imported oil.

Just as important, foreclosing access to America's numerous oil and gas deposits for such reasons presumes it is OK for the rest of the world to assume risks of blowouts and other ecological damage for America's sake – but it is not OK for the United States to assume any risks to meet its own energy needs. It presumes the United States' environmental values, and its citizens' sensitivities about them, are somehow more vital than those in other nations.

Meanwhile, tapping America's reserves would mean significant economic growth, increased energy security and lower US (and global) energy prices. Developing the oil and natural gas reserves now kept off-limits by Congress, courts, activists and government agencies could mean another $1.7 trillion in government revenue, according to an American Petroleum Institute study. It would also mean millions of high-paying jobs in states that could certainly use an influx of employment right now.

In Nigeria, oil and gas exploration now accounts for 40% of our GDP, as well as 98% of export earnings and 83% of federal-government revenue. We are a developing nation, but we manage to access our reserves in a safe, environmentally sound way, despite many challenges, including deliberate sabotage. Were America to embrace full-scale production, it would force producers everywhere – including Nigeria – to be more competitive, thereby making energy cheaper for consumers worldwide.

In March, the Obama administration awarded its first permit for a new deep-water drilling project in the Gulf of Mexico (with beefed-up safety regulations) since the Deepwater Horizon disaster. This is a step in the right direction. However, dozens of Gulf permits still await consideration, and the snail-like pace of approval there and throughout the USA only exacerbates America's (and the world's) energy anxiety.

President Obama has earned global good will for his efforts to make America a better international partner. Those efforts should not exclude his country's obligation to pay its fair share of America's and the world's travel, heating and manufacturing bill. ESR

Thompson Ayodele is executive director of Initiative for Public Policy Analysis, a policy think tank based in Lagos, Nigeria.

 

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