Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Thursday, March 17, 2005


This is a long post (I feel like Drek), but it's worth reading through to conclusion.

The Senate voted today on a major step forward toward destroying polluting drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the last spots of pristine wilderness in the U.S. Read about it in a good New York Times article (you have to register, but it's free to read), or this Fox News article (if your stomach can handle Fox News).

Here's what went down: When Senate Republicans wrote the budget, they used language assuming that the ANWR would be open to drilling. Because it was included in the budget, opponents could not filibuster against it. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) sponsored an amendment that would remove this language from the budget. The Senate defeated the amendment 51-49, with 3 Democrats voting no (i.e. pro-drilling) and 7 Republicans voting yes (anti-drilling).

Why do supporters want to drill in the ANWR? Here's why, straight from the elephant's mouth, courtesy of the Fox News story:
"This project will keep our economy growing by creating jobs and ensuring that businesses can expand," Bush said in a statement. "And it will make America less dependent on foreign sources of energy, eventually by up to a million barrels of oil a day."

Will it really? Here is a little independent research, from your favorite former geologist, Slag. I used the United States Geological Survey (USGS)'s 1998 ANWR Petroleum Assessment (a highly technical PDF document).

How much oil is available under the ANWR? Drilling advocates sometimes say estimates of 16 billion barrels of oil, or even higher estimates. 16 billion barrels is the highest possible estimate (the 5% probability level) of the amount of "technically recoverable" oil (the amount that can be pumped out of the ground using current technology). Higher estimates assume that ill-defined "future technology" will allow deeper-lying, less-accessible oil to be recovered, which seems more like wishful thinking more than scientifically informed policy.

The most reasonable estimate for the amount of oil is 10.8 billion barrels, based on the 50% probability level in the USGS study. You can see for yourself in the "Assessment Results" section at the top of page 4. So, there are 10.8 billion barrels of recoverable oil under the ANWR, right?

In the words of Lee Corso, "not so fast, my friends." "Technically recoverable" oil means the amount of oil that could conceivably be recovered, without regard for the cost of recovery. In other words, if an oil company had an infinite drilling budget, they could recover 10.8 billion barrels of oil from the ANWR. But of course, it costs money to drill for oil, and oil must be sold at a profit. So, considering economic factors, how much oil could reasonably be sold based on drilling the ANWR (USGS refers to this as "economically recoverable")?

It's sorta-buried in the caption to Figure 6 on page 6, but the 50% estimate (and therefore most likely amount) is 5.2 billion barrels. That sounds like a lot, right?

In a way, it is. But the giant black SUV that is the United States economy requires a lot of oil to run. According to this spreadsheet from the Department of Energy (it's an Excel file, so you need Excel on your computer to see it), from January to November 2004, the U.S. consumed 20.4 million barrels of oil per day.

(Math review: 1 billion = 1,000 million.) So the length of time the ANWR will last is the total amount of oil available (economically recoverable) divided by the daily consumption.

5.2 billion barrels / 20.4 million barrels per day = 255 days = 8 1/2 months

Of course the USGS economic recoverability was based on an oil price of $24 per barrel, which was reasonable in 1998 but too low today. If we assume that oil costs the same to drill but can be sold for more money, then a greater percentage of the oil will be recoverable. Let's be generous and say that the higher price of oil means 50% more oil is recoverable, so the oil will last 50% longer. (I know this is rough, but I'm an ex-geologist, not an ex-economist.) That's about one year. (Yes, I know it won't be consumed all at once. But the bottom line of about one year is the same, whether the oil meets 100% of U.S. demand for one year or 2% of U.S. demand for 50 years.)

One year's worth of oil, folks. Then it's gone. And so is one of America's last unspoiled wildernesses.

Will it reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil? Maybe for a year, but then we'll have to buy more. Will it reduce gas prices? Probably not at all, considering all the factors that go into setting prices. Will it make a few people in the energy industry fabulously rich? Oh yeah.

I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

P.S. For those readers who think that USGS and the Department of Energy are part of the "liberal media," may I suggest you see a psychologist to work on your inability to trust.


Blogger Drek said...

My god, Slag, that was a great post. Informed, sarcastic, ruthless... I'm so proud. And... yes, perhaps just a little aroused.

Thursday, March 17, 2005 9:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You obviously like to play fast and loose with the facts. Take for example, this claim:

it's an Excel file, so you need Excel on your computer to see it

PROVABLY FALSE. I am running Linux without Excel and I can totally see it. This invalidates your entire argument and calls your "fuzzy math" into question.

I am joking about everything except running Linux.

Thursday, March 17, 2005 5:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great analysis, but you realize that ANWR is small potatoes. The point is to set a precedent for drilling in other protected areas. After all, if Americans are willing to kill off a few [120,000] Porcupine caribou to keep their wankers, um, Hummers well lubed, they also won't mind waking up to oil rigs off the Malibu coast. Right?

Some stunning photos of ANWR are available in Subhankar Banerjee's book. If you can't afford the book, go to and follow the links through Arctic NWR Resources. (Incidentally, Bush & CO successfully blocked his photos from being shown at the Smithsonian, on the grounds that they were "too political" for public monies. See for yourself...) No affiliation, blah blah blah.

Friday, March 18, 2005 10:11:00 AM  

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