Wishes Won’t Fuel Our Economy: We Need Oil Drilling

Wordsmiths tell us the phrase “you can’t get blood from a turnip” has been around since 1666.1 You’d think 335 years would be long enough to get the point across, but apparently not, because some environmentalists still believe alternative energy is powerful enough to run the country.

Would, as the environmentalists claim, our war on terrorism be less complicated if we did not have to rely on oil from the Middle East? Of course. But a switch to alternative fuels is not the best or fastest way to reduce this dependence.

Consider California’s experience. For two decades, California has vigilantly promoted alternative energy. It also has suffered an energy crisis.

California has more than 100 windmill power generator facilities. They provide a total of 1,400 megawatts of electricity, while the state’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant provides 2,100 mw of electricity. It would take over 3,300 such windmill facilities to generate enough electricity for the entire state.2

Wind energy suffers economic, practical and environmental disadvantages. Its generation costs are double to triple that of conventional energy.3 The technology requires minimum average wind speeds, and, because winds are unpredictable, output cannot be timed to match demand. Turbine blades can kill birds – the Cato Institute estimates that if 20% of our nation’s electricity were to be generated by wind power, 880,000 birds would be killed annually by the process.4 Even environmentalists who support wind power express concern about bird safety, and urge that the wind power turbines only be located in areas where few birds will be affected.5

The American Wind Energy Association claims only that wind energy could account for six percent of U.S. energy needs by 2020.6 So even if the practical problems with wind power can be rectified, we can’t expect it to play a major role in helping us win a war this year.

Solar energy is no panacea either: California is home to the world’s largest set of solar electric cells, yet the set provides just 413 mw of electricity.7

Meanwhile, hydropower – creating electricity with turbines at dams – requires capital investments that are three to six times higher than for conventional energy.8 Hydropower’s future may also be limited by environmentalists – many of the same environmentalists who promote alternative energy – because environmentalists oppose dams, as damming rivers can harm aquatic flora and fauna and kill fish.

Environmentalists claim alternative energy, conservation, increased tax funding of mass transit and bans on the construction of new suburbs are the best ways to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. All of these options, including many forms of mandatory conservation, are expensive to taxpayers and consumers; several are unpopular and unfair. Limits on the growth of suburbs, for example, result in more expensive housing – but a nice house in the suburbs and a yard for the kids should not exclusively be the province of the rich and upper-middle class.9

Nevertheless, the free market is fair. Americans will use any method of energy that is practical and economical, regardless of whether it is labeled “alternative.” But until alternative energy can compete in the free market, we need to rely on the tried and true – including oil.

America probably has more than 110 billion barrels of recoverable oil reserves. A 1995 National Assessment of U.S. Oil and Gas Resources prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) concluded that, in addition to the 20 billion barrels of proved reserves, there are another 30 billion barrels of undiscovered oil that could be recovered using conventional drilling and exploration technology. There are at least 60 billion barrels of inferred reserves that can be recovered with new technology. Including the oil that can be extracted from shale and other unconventional sources, the USGS believes, the U.S. has 112.3 billion barrels of oil.10

Full exploitation of this potential supply would not make the U.S. energy independent, but it would make the U.S. less vulnerable to instability in the Middle East. It can also be done in an environmentally-responsible manner.

Unfortunately, since 1983, federal land available for oil and gas exploration in the western U.S. – where 67% of the nation’s onshore oil reserves and 40% of natural gas reserves are located – has decreased by more than 60%.11 More than 300 million onshore acres of federal land essentially have been removed from the market for oil exploration.12

Congress also has prohibited exploration and production on more than 460 million offshore acres, including most of the best prospects for major new offshore discoveries outside the Western and Central Gulf of Mexico.13 As the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the federal portion of offshore drilling, which currently comprise 18% of U.S. production, will rise to nearly a third of domestic oil and gas supply within a decade, federal restrictions in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean and on the Pacific coast should be reviewed and, in some cases, relaxed.14

The House of Representatives recently moved to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by permitting drilling on 2,000 acres of the oil-rich 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The Energy Information Administration estimates that ANWR contains 5.7-16 billion barrels of oil. As the U.S. currently imports 1.5 million barrels of oil a day from Saudi Arabia, ANWR oil could replace what we now import from the Saudis for almost 30 years. Or, it could replace half of what we import from all of the Persian Gulf for 36 years.15 The Senate has yet to vote on the bill – ironically, says Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, because the Senate is busy with the war on terrorism.

The time for excuses – especially dubious ones – is past. It is time we quit trying to wish our way out of dependence on Mideast oil and started to do something about it.


Amy Ridenour is President of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. The author was assisted by research done by Syd Gernstein and John Carlisle.


1 The Phrase Finder website (http://phrases.shu.ac.uk/), citing the Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings by Gregory Y. Titelman, Random House, New York, 1996.
2 William Tucker, “The Myth of Alternative Energy,” The Weekly Standard, May 21, 2001.
3 Robert L. Bradley, Jr., “Renewable Energy, Not Cheap, Not Green,” The Cato Institute, Washington, DC, downloaded from www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-280.html on October 17, 200l.
4 Ibid.
5 David Case, “Do Windmills Eat Birds,” quoting Perry Plumart, the Audubon Society’s government relations director, TomPaine.com, downloaded from http://www.tompaine.com/opinion/2001/05/03/1.html on October 17, 2001.
6 Glenn Garelick, “Beyond Oil,” Audubon Online 2001, downloaded from http://magazine.audubon.org/features0109/beyond_oil.html on October 17, 2001.
7 Tucker.
8 Bradley.
9 As a side note, subways and crowded urban centers are better targets for terrorists than disbursed housing and expansive highway systems. Whatever merits there may be in an expensive war against “sprawl,” fighting terrorism isn’t one of them.
10 “The 1995 National Assessment of the United States Oil and Gas Resources,” United States Geological Survey, Washington, DC, 1995.
11 “Why Access to Government Lands is Crucial,” American Petroleum Institute, Washington, DC, May 2000.
12 “Access to Government Lands,” American Petroleum Institute, Washington, DC, January 1997.
13 Ibid.
14 “Why Access to Government Lands is Crucial.”
15 Tom Randall, “Senate Democrats Fight Energy Bill,” Ten Second Response, The National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington, DC, October 18, 2001, available on the Internet at http://www.nationalcenter.org/TSR101801.html.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.