Obama to expand offshore oil drilling

A few days ago President Obama announced plans to open up large areas of the Eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico to exploration for oil and natural gas production. My initial reaction was strongly negative. Why elect a Democratic president if he’s going to tow the Republican line?

Upon further reflection – and a significant cool down period – I have some other thoughts:

I’m generically opposed to offshore drilling – shoot, even onshore drilling – as an environmental matter, but this sentence from President Obama’s speech sums up the challenge and the reality of providing for the present while ensuring the prosperity of the future:
> Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth and produce jobs, and keep our businesses competitive, **we are going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy.** (emphasis mine)

This is really the crux of a realistic (the buzzword lately has been “pragmatic”) assessment of our energy future. In my dream of dreams, a massive transportation and electricity production shift would occur in the next 3 years, ridding the U.S. economy of most fossil fuel use, negating the need for further domestic oil and gas production. This is, unfortunately, completely unrealistic.

On balance, I’d rather the fossil fuels we use be produced locally, just like I’d like my food to be grown locally. I’m not a fan of supporting petro-regimes via their product, nor do I support exporting the environmental costs of our actions to other places. In an ideal world, we would have developed an energy currency that is easily transportable, plentiful, and as dense as fossil fuels already. But we have not, and for the next 20 years or so, we are going to have to slowly wind down our current system while scaling up something completely new.

As to whether this makes for a good political move, I’m not sure. I have a general pessimism about current Republicans voting for anything – literally anything – that can be construed as progressive or liberal in any way. But this may convince some of the mythical “middle” of the voting populace that this is not a deeply ideological president, and that he’s willing to take on his base (me, liberals, environmentalists) in order to appeal to a broad cross-section of the country. Notably, more Americans support energy production over environmental protection for the first time since Gallup started asking the question.

This isn’t the environmental move that I’d like to have seen. Yet if this pragmatism leads to a price on carbon and increased health and safety via the EPA, then I support it.

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tim

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  1. Donna - April 15, 2010

    When I was much younger, I remember traveling through Texas on our way to California. I can remember seeing acres of oil pumps, bobbing up and down. In my young mind, those pumps reminded me of birds trying to get worms out of the ground. Now, roll the calendar forward 20 years and once again, as an adult, I am traveling across the same open stretches of Texas. Where are the pumps? They were no longer there. Oil is not an infinite resource. The environmental movement has been going on for decades. As a nation, we are coming across as bullies. We need that oil and we will do whatever we can to get it.
    I know that withdrawal can be painful and sometimes it can take a long time. But, we will never get over the addiction to oil, if we keep looking for it.

  2. Michelle - April 15, 2010

    Go with your first initial reaction: strongly negative. Did we not vote for “change”. This seems to me as the same old, same old.

  3. Tom P - April 15, 2010

    Tim, you speak wisely and with informed opinion. As much as I have been a zealous, pro-environmental and outspoken critic of the status quo far too vigorously defended by conservatives, I concur that, for the foreseeable future, we, as a country need to explore for oil sources.
    As most eloquently and convincingly brought forward in his book, “Gusher of Lies”, Robert Bryce, regardless of his political posture speaks the truth. The US, with its enormous thirst for oil (4.7% of the world’s population but consuming 25% of the world’s gas), is not soon to retreat from this dubious and lofty distinction as the world’s greediest country.
    As even President Bush observed, we are “addicted to oil” and the developmental pace of alternate and renewable energy sources can’t possibly keep pace. We need collective restraint and better city planning. Who is willing to do the heavy lifting here?

  4. Tim - April 15, 2010

    @Donna – I’m more of the mind that we’ll never get over our addiction to oil unless the incentives to create and use alternative energy sources exist (e.g. cap and trade, carbon tax). Broadly, there is a reason that oil and fossil fuels in general have been so widely adopted as energy sources: they’re extremely energy-dense, can be transported, and were (originally) relatively easy to develop. Oil is not infinite – no resource is – and I’m interested in meeting and decreasing our energy demand in the near term and into the future.
    @Michelle – I don’t agree with that assessment. Energy production, including fossil fuels, renewables and nuclear, is part of a larger economic and social system. It seems to me that expanding local fossil fuel production is being considered within the context of strengthened environmental protection, and (especially noteworthy) the inclusion of carbon costs into our economic system. That is an enormous change from previous administrations.

  5. Geoff - April 15, 2010

    Tim,
    Though we come at this from very different directions, we arrive at a similar place. Unsurprising, because the principle involved is essentially the same one TerraPass is based on: we reduce the emissions that are most tractable so we can continue using the legacy energy sources we need, until more effective low-emission sources and devices can be developed and ramped up.

  6. dlmchale - April 15, 2010

    so then what about this:
    4. Oil dependence is a problem we needn

  7. Tony E - April 16, 2010

    I would like to agree with the writer but must remind him that this oil is going on the open market and there is no guarantee that it will come to the US. China is investing heavily in this endeavor and wants all the oil it can have.
    The Alaskan oil was the same way. Most of it went to Asia.

  8. Geoff - April 16, 2010

    Tony E,
    You have your facts wrong on this. It’s illegal to export most US oil, with a few exceptions, mainly for Alaskan crude and crude produced near the US/Canadian border, where it’s closer to Canadian pipelines. Even at the peak of Alaskan North Slope production, exports never exceeded a couple of hundred thousand barrels per day, or less than 15% of the 2 million barrels a day of North Slope output at the time. And for every barrel exported, we were buying back another barrel from elsewhere–usually at lower shipping cost–and thus neutral or slightly beneficial for the US trade balance. Since 2000, US oil exports have averaged less than 100,000 bbl/day. See: http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/dnav/pet/hist/LeafHandler.ashx?n=PET&s=MCREXUS2&f=M

  9. Deb - April 16, 2010

    I think the president is being very savy with this – even though I hate the thought of off-shore drilling. Don’t the states get to decide if it happens in their backyard? As I understood from the political campaigning – even if the shores were opened up it was still going to take 10 years or more to get the oil to U.S. consumers. That gives us a window – and for many an added incentive to impliment alternative energies. In ten years the alternatives may have moved more center stage and people will be less willing to see their shores compromised. Meanwhile, the Prez gets credit for working with conservative anti-conservation rabble while knowing that most of the hoop-la won’t happen on his watch!

  10. Dan - April 22, 2010

    TerraPass & Tim Varga & many commentors,
    Politics, it is said, is the art of the possible. But what is possible? That is the question.
    And how can we know the answer to this question? I would like to use a saying, perhaps outmoded. from the 1960

  11. Tom Harrison - April 29, 2010

    Given the growing environmental disaster occurring now as a result of BP’s offshore oil drilling platform explosion, I would thing political debate on this topic isn’t likely to move forward any time soon.
    But I think there’s a larger issue here — as long as we delude ourselves that getting more oil is going to do anything significant about our energy needs and security, the more we distract from the real problem.
    We don’t have much choice in this matter: we had better get our energy act together really soon.
    Tom

  12. Geoff - April 29, 2010

    ” as long as we delude ourselves that getting more oil is going to do anything significant about our energy needs and security”
    The relative scales of conventional energy and alternatives are a matter of chemistry and physics, not perception. The 130 turbine Cape Wind project just approved by Secretary Salazar would generate as much power on average as a gas turbine using an amount of natural gas equal to just 6,000 bbl/day of oil–coincidentally roughly the amount leaking from the single well that Deepwater Horizon was drilling. A completed producing platform delivers anywhere from 5 to 40 times as much as that. The entire 10,000 MW of new wind installed last year is equivalent to a single platform like Shell’s 100,000 bbl/day Perdido.
    And that’s not to say this is a tradeoff. We need both, not least because wind and solar don’t back out a barrel of oil, since oil generates less than 1% of the electricity we use.

  13. Tom Harrison - April 29, 2010

    If we use comparisons to what is happening today we fall into a trap, I think.
    The amount of wind brought online last year is far, far less than it would be if we had proper incentives in place (e.g. cap and trade, carbon tax, etc.). We don’t have a shortage of wind or sun; we have a shortage of the devices we build to convert their energy into a usable form.
    The chemistry and physics issues associated with storage of energy (not just batteries) are largely solvable.
    Renewable electricity sources can replace oil in many cases today, and coal and nat gas in almost all cases. The properties of liquid fuels (in particular energy density) are certainly attractive in some applications, but much of our oil use can and is being replaced by electric systems.
    If you ask me, the issue we have is that we have a huge existing infrastructure already built to support oil, gas and coal. It was cheap energy, we thought … as it turns out, it will be hugely expensive once all the costs are added up.
    Shifting to a system where renewables provide a major share of our energy use mainly requires time and the will of the people and our government to change. And getting that will is by far the hardest problem we need to solve.
    Tom