For nearly a decade, proposals to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have been at the heart of a political debate that touches on a wide range of potent issues: the moral and military implications of America's dependence on foreign energy supplies, the proper balance between stewardship and exploitation of natural resources, the long-term ramifications of our fossil-fuel appetite.
To those at
either extreme of the debate spectrum, ANWR drilling has become a
public-policy litmus test as stark and divisive as the conflict
over abortion. Opening the refuge's protected coastal plain to
energy exploration is either an unmitigated environmental tragedy
in the making or it is the nation’s economic and moral
obligation to future generations.
You are either for it
or against it, viscerally and unswervingly.
Americans, however, fall into neither of those camps. They occupy
the vast middle ground, where the choice is less emotionally
resonant and therefore less obvious. Sensibly, they ask what the
trade-off is. How much oil is there, and at what environmental cost
would it be extracted?
Most of these undecideds rely for
that information on the national news media. This is unfortunate,
for as it turns out, reporters have been doing a rather poor job of
presenting the central facts underlying the entire ANWR debate.
With the issue of Alaskan oil exploration returning to prominence
--Senate Republican leaders last month said they're considering
attaching an ANWR drilling rider to a crucial federal budget bill
-- access to accurate information has never been more important.
Although many considerations eventually come into play,
the argument over whether to drill in this Alaskan wildlife refuge
has a single fact at its heart: the quantity of oil the currently
protected part of the refuge would yield. Opponents of drilling
offer one figure, usually quite small, while proponents offer
another, usually quite large. Reporters typically cite both
extremes, leaving readers with the impression that the truth lies
somewhere in between.
While that seems reasonable, it
really is not. "This is muddled science at best and, on the whole,
a great disservice to policymaking," according to a team of
researchers who recently examined reporting about energy issues in
the popular news media and have presented their conclusions in the
current edition of the peer-reviewed journal, Annual Review of
Energy and the Environment.
Reviewing 35 widely
circulated news stories printed or aired between December 2000 and
September 2001, the researchers identified 40 distinct estimates of
the amount of oil likely to be found beneath
ANWR’s1.5-million-acre coastal plain.
high estimate was 13 billion barrels," the scientists wrote, "and
the average low estimate was 7.6 billion barrels, leaving readers
to conclude that a number somewhere in the middle --about 10
billion barrels -- would be roughly right."
Unfortunately, the researchers said, that "implicitly overstated
the economically recoverable reserves ... by about a factor of
The key term is "economically recoverable." The
sheer quantity of oil in a given deposit is irrelevant, as is the
amount that could theoretically be tapped using the most
sophisticated drilling techniques. What matters is the amount that
can be extracted profitably. That figure varies greatly, depending
on the costs of pumping, transporting and refining the crude, and
the price for which the final product can be sold. Oil that costs
more to produce and ship than it will bring on the open market may
as well not exist.
A similar caveat applies to any
estimate of energy reserves on public land, whether in Wyoming's
Red Desert, Montana's Rocky Mountain Front or Colorado's Vermillion
There is only one credible source of numbers
regarding the amount of recoverable oil beneath ANWR: the U.S.
Geological Survey, whose petroleum geologists have analyzed the
physical formations beneath the refuge, and applied a battery of
technical and economic tests to yield statistical estimates of the
quantity of oil that could be pumped from it. Just about everyone
quoted in news stories is selectively citing figures from that
How much economically recoverable oil is
there beneath ANWR? The actual range of North Slope crude oil
market prices since 1986 has been $15 to $25 a barrel. If Alaskan
crude is bringing a market price of $25 a barrel (in 1996 dollars),
there's a 95 percent possibility of recovering 2.3 billion barrels,
a 50 percent chance of recovering 5.6 billion barrels, and a 5
percent chance of recovering 9.5 billion barrels, according to the
If the price is $15 a barrel, there’s a 95
percent chance that the reserve will yield zero barrels of oil and
only a 5 percent chance it will yield as much as 2.7 billion
The true middle point-- 50 percent probability
of recovery if the price is $20 a barrel -- is 3.6 billion barrels.
Annual U.S. consumption is about 7.2 billion barrels. The debate
should start with those numbers.