There’s been a lot of talk about the candidates’ positions on offshore drilling for oil in the past week. Both candidates used to oppose it. Now McCain is gung-ho in favor of it. Obama has indicated a willingness to allow it to a limited extent if necessary for passage of broader energy policy reform. All of this talk has been in the context of reducing gasoline prices. But no one is talking about how this fits into the broader context of overall economic and environmental goals. The following are three inter-related goals and issues:
- The stated goal of breaking our dependence on foreign oil. This is not only a national security issue but a critical economic issue as well. Our annual $300 billion trade deficit in oil (not to mention our $500 billion trade deficit in manufactured goods) is destroying the value of the dollar and our economy along with it.
- Regardless of how you feel about the issue of global warming, it has already been decided that it’s real and that America needs to reduce its carbon emissions by 50% by the year 2050. The only practical way to do this is by reducing our burning of fossil fuels by 50%. Yes, it may be technologically feasible to continue burning while removing CO2 from the emissions, but then what? Where do we store all of the CO2? It’s unsustainable, much like the problem with nuclear power. (What do we do with all of the radioactive waste?) In the final analysis, the only sensible approach is to cut our burning of fuel. This includes not only oil but natural gas, coal, wood and trash.
- Although the government has no stated population policy, it has an unwritten policy of expanding the U.S. population by about 1% per year, primarily through immigration. In light of the above two priorities, can this be allowed to continue?
The environmentalist in me cringes at the thought of visiting the beach and seeing a horizon spoiled by oil wells. (Visit a beach in Texas to see what I mean.) But, being an engineer, I recognize that there may be a need for offshore drilling. I decided to calculate just how much if any would be needed, and I’d like to share with you the results.
Currently, the U.S. consumes about 21 million barrels of oil per day, the vast majority of which is burned for transportation and for stationary applications like power generation, home heating, etc. Only about 8 million barrels per day is produced domestically, and that’s declining by about 2.3% per year as reserves dry up. (Our current reserves are only sufficient to meet our domestic needs for ten years or less.) We currently have over 700 wells in the Gulf of Mexico. For the purpose of my calculation, I assume that we could conceivably build another 700 wells along the east coast and another 700 wells along the west coast. I also assumed that each well could produce, on average, 500 barrels per day, a generous figure. And all of this assumed that there are actually offshore oil fields that could be harvested. I decided to plug these parameters into a spreadsheet and experiment with assumptions to see what combination of assumptions would enable us to meet these goals. Here’s my spreadsheet, followed by a summary of conclusions:
- Both goals are achievable. Of the two above-stated goals, it is the elimination of oil imports that is, by far, the more difficult objective to achieve.
- Achievement of both goals by 2050 is impossible without immediately implementing plans to:
- drill offshore as fast and as much as possible, bringing 100 offshore wells on line by 2018 and 50 more wells every year, reaching a maximum of 1400 wells,
- reduce our per capita consumption of oil by 3.6% per year and by almost 80% by 2050, and
- reduce our population by 0.5% per year from today’s level of about 305 million to 247 million by 2050. Continuing reductions beyond that will likely be necessary.
- All of these assumptions are extremely aggressive if they are achievable at all.
This exercise really drove home for me just how dire our situation is. We can’t meet our goals by simply cutting per capita consumption, not without driving our standard of living down to match that of 3rd world countries. And it’s simply impossible to drill our way out of our problems, but it’s also impossible to solve our dependency on foreign oil without it. Achieving both goals is simply imossible without immediate and dramatic changes to our immigration policy and without new programs designed to further reduce our population.
To solve these probems is going to require action and dedication by our leadership the likes of which this nation has never seen. By comparison, putting a man on the moon was child’s play. We have to attack the problems of per capita oil consumption, domestic oil production and overpopulation with a war-like mentality where defeat is not an option. I really wonder if our democracy is capable of this kind of action, or will we be bogged down in partisan arguments over details and minutia. Our very quality of life hangs in the balance.