The Landing Zone | 5.14.10
By Alan W. Dowd

President Barack Obama recently announced the “expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration.” According to the president, tapping domestic oil reserves and pursuing a diversified energy strategy will help ensure that America is “no longer tethered to the whims of what happens somewhere in the Middle East or with other major oil-producing nations.”

It’s about time.

A quarter-century ago, just 27 percent of America’s oil came from other countries. Today, some 60 percent comes from outside the United States. This reality forces the American people not just to countenance thuggish or otherwise unpleasant regimes from afar, but to go to war for them, or against them, or at least to protect them and prop them up.

There’s another way, and it runs not through Islam’s holy lands, Chavez’s Venezuela or Putin’s Russia, but through the vast oil wealth that exists right here in the United States—offshore and onshore. In short, it’s time to call up the reserves.

There have been a number of sizable discoveries of stateside oil in the recent years:

-The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic may hold 90 billion barrels of oil. About a third of the oil is in Alaskan territory. Yet another USGS study concludes that North Dakota and Montana “have an estimated 3 to 4.3 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil.”

-RAND estimates that Colorado, Utah and Wyoming sit atop a goldmine of oil-shale deposits, once thought to be too expensive to convert into petroleum. These states hold between 500 billion and 1.1 trillion recoverable barrels. As RAND’s James Bartis explains, “We’ve got more oil in this very compact area than the entire Middle East.” Already, the Canadian province of Alberta is converting its oil sands into 1.31 million barrels per day.

-The American Petroleum Institute (API) reports that opening up new outer continental shelf areas “could lift domestic crude production by nearly 1 million barrels per day.” And if onshore areas were developed, “output could rise by as much as 2 million barrels a day by 2030.”

-In the U.S. swath of the Gulf of Mexico, British Petroleum estimates a new reserve could yield 6 billion barrels of oil and gas. Just off the coast of Louisiana, Chevron has found an oil field with perhaps 15 billion barrels of oil.

Some will use the April 2010 oil spill in the Gulf as reason to block new offshore drilling or even phase out drilling altogether. To do so would be to abandon a vital economic resource for which there is simply no replacement (at least not yet). Moreover, what if we had reacted in the same manner in April 1947, when a port explosion in Texas triggered an oil-refinery fire that killed 500 people? Should we have stopped drilling back then?

The Energy Information Administration reports that the U.S. has 30.4 billion barrels of oil, a figure that does not include the untapped oil reserves mentioned above.

As a report by the National Center for Policy Analysis concludes, “We are not running out of oil.” The very opposite may be more accurate: In 1920, the USGS estimated total world oil supplies at 60 billion barrels. In 1950, the experts pushed that number to 600 billion. By the mid-1990s, the estimate was higher yet—2.4 trillion. And today, the estimate is 3 trillion barrels of oil.

The reason for this constant upward readjustment is technology. “Before the first U.S. well was drilled in 1859, petroleum supplies were limited to oil that oozed to the surface,” according to NCPA. Today, technology is allowing explorers to drill in places considered unreachable in the past.

Yet at a consumption rate of 20 million barrels per day, America’s substantial oil reserves are not limitless. Still, they are enough to carry us, comfortably, to what might be called “the post-petro economy.”

It is in the national interest to pursue multiple paths to energy independence. That includes nuclear energy; hybrid, hydrogen and battery technologies; conservation strategies; bio-fuels (if they can be weaned off subsidies) and fossil fuels from right here in America. But don’t misunderstand “energy independence” as isolation or total self-sufficiency. “The point of independence is not to be an economic hermit,” former CIA director James Woolsey and Anna Korin argue, “but rather to be a free actor.”

As a range of disparate realities continually remind us—the chaos and wars of the Middle East, the capricious behavior of lawless leaders, the limitations of our own distribution channels, the growing energy needs of India and China—we are not really a free actor. Instead, we are just a Mideast crisis or homeland hurricane away from the sort of disruptions that wreak havoc with our economy, play games with our foreign policy and put our troops in harm’s way. 

The two-track goal should be maximum development of domestic oil reserves to enable America to reconfigure its supply base in the near term, and investments today in the energy alternatives of tomorrow’s “post-petro economy.” 

The list of non-U.S. sources of the oil Americans consume includes such unstable, undependable and/or unsavory regimes as Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iraq, Angola, Kuwait, Algeria, Russia and Libya. By increasing domestic output and production, we can decrease dependence on these countries and rebalance America’s supply base. AIP concludes that taking full advantage of domestic oil reserves could decrease foreign oil imports by 79.7 percent.

It’s a matter of will, and it’s about time.

The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.