Sunday, February 8, 2009

Drilling for Oil in Utah and Free Cigarette Coupons-an Analogy

Last Wednesday (Feb. 4th), recently appointed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar rolled back leases on 77 parcels of government-owned land issued to oil and gas companies by the Bush administration. The parcels of land are located in Utah's redrock country. Salazar said that "we will take time and a fresh look at these 77 parcels to see if they are appropriate for oil and gas development." What this comment means exactly I am not sure, although it seems clear that this "fresh look" will likely find that some or all of these lands are, in fact, NOT appropriate for drilling. From the AP article:

"Salazar said some of the 77 lease parcels are too close to Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument, all in Utah. Other leases taken off the table were on the high cliffs of whitewater sections of the Green River through Desolation Canyon.

Salazar also acted to protect plateaus populated by big game atop Nine Mile Canyon, sometimes called the world's longest art gallery because of its collection of ancient rock-art panels."

Considering the quote above, it seems like the main reason Salazar is halting these potential drilling operations is that they would disrupt the natural aesthetic, biological harmony, and anthropological value that currently exists in this beautiful area of Utah. To me, protecting pristine wilderness areas from this sort of disruption is a nice thing to do, but I am not surprised that there are many people on the other side of the argument who think that drilling in these and similarly beautiful wilderness areas is a good idea. The merits of drilling operations in, for example, the Alaskan wilderness have been debated to exhaustion, and a certain vice presidential candidate got Dangerously Close to the White House, partially because she supported drilling in Alaska as a solution to the "energy security" issue as well as a way to mitigate the economic woes from high gasoline prices.

Of course there are numerous flaws to the argument that initiating drilling operations for domestic sources of oil and natural gas will reduce the price of gasoline, but what of the "energy security/independence" issue? And what of the more simplistic economic argument that our vast expenditures on oil would be better kept in our own economy than sent across borders or overseas? As for energy independence, it's a complicated issue. Whether it's something that is remotely attainable or even a good thing is up to debate, as this article argues. Instead of getting too far into the sociopolitical implications of imported oil, or the relative merits of domestic renewable energy alternatives, I'd like instead to initiate a more philosophical discussion about domestic drilling.

One reason that drilling for oil might not be a great idea is that using more domestic oil will not hurt the evil oil-exporting governments that the "energy security" hawks would like to hurt. I believe that if we don't buy their oil, someone else will because it's just too useful not to buy. Also, domestic drilling is a band-aid at best--it's not a permanent solution to the broader energy issue because our oil supplies are finite. They will eventually run out in a matter of time, and this time scale is on the order of decades, not centuries.

BUT on the other side of the argument, oil is really valuable, and we have significant amounts of it here in the US of A, and shouldn't we use that oil and get the benefits from it since we are going to buy so much oil from other people anyway?

At this point I want to introduce an analogy for thinking about our domestic oil reserves:

It's like we have a bunch of coupons buried underground that can only be redeemed for cigarettes. Now, we already spend a lot of money on cigarettes. We pay out big money to the cigarette companies every day, but really most of us would like to quit. Cigarettes hurt our bodies, they cost a lot, and they are extremely addictive. The question is, should we rip up some beautiful landscape so that we can save a few bucks on cigarettes and inflict an extremely small wound on the cigarette companies' bank rolls? I think in this analogy, we obviously shouldn't. What we should obviously do is quit smoking. I think we should hold onto the gift certificates, and then maybe we can redeem them later when we have (a) a way to extract them without hurting the environment, and (b) a way to get the enjoyment out of smoking them without hurting our bodies. In the mean time let's try to quit, and just realize that we can't keep smoking forever, and these free cigarette coupons really aren't going to address that at all.


Vladdy Vladdivladstock said...

The link to the article arguing about "energy independence" is this:

(there's an extra space in the web address I put in the original link)

Chesapeake said...

I disagree with comparison of petroleum to cigarettes. Your body isn't strengthened by cigarettes, but petroleum helped the United States to become a global economic superpower. If a cigarette could do that for me, I'd want to go big. I'd be addicted to cigars. (Rocky Patel Vintage 1999, in case you wondered.)

I'm all in favor of promoting responsible alternatives to petroleum, as too much of a good thing is too much. But to not develop and perfect all of the resources that we have within our own borders is a luxury that we can no longer afford. If we can even marginally reduce our oil imports from Saudi Arabia, and replace them with homegrown product, while driving economic growth at home, why not go for the combo shot?

I am not implacably opposed to protecting sensitive environmental areas from development -- but if we're going to make that trade-off, it should be because there's a clearly understood benefit that outweighs the benefits of development. That may be the case with the Utah leases, but I have yet to hear a compelling argument -- and I note that Secretary Salazar did not specifically rule out granting some of the leases at a future date in his announcement. That would suggest that his decision was based on short-term political considerations.

Note that Salazar said: "We will take a fresh look at these 77 parcels and at the adequacy of the environmental review and analysis that led to their being offered for oil and gas development. I am also concerned that there was inadequate consultation with other agencies, including the National Park Service." That type of statement gives you wiggle room if you don't want to completely close the door. It was not an unequivocal "no, we will not do this."

John Saville said...

Although I am not sure if I agree with the comparison of petroleum to cigarettes, I am thankful that the sale of the lease parcels has been stopped by Secretary Salazar. To me, protecting pristine wilderness, is much more than “a nice thing to do” as Vladdy states, it is moral obligation that we have to the future generations of Americans. I visited the Southwestern part of Utah over the winter break and can think of no worse thing than destroying the natural beauty that exists in the region in the name of a small reduction in dependence on foreign oil. After all what is so wrong with using foreign oil. Why are we so ready to deplete our own natural reserves? Is it some perception that if we import less oil we will be a safer country? I would tend to say the opposite. If we can keep the few untouched proven oil reserves as they are, wouldn’t that give us something to fall back on in time of crisis? This is obliviously not a time of crisis (as far as oil supply goes that is) and therefore we should not be willing to destroy pristine wilderness for the sake of short term benefit.

Chesapeake said...

John, if you want to know what's wrong with over-reliance on foreign oil, just examine the past two wars in Iraq. I am not against importing oil, per se. I just prefer that we get it from more stable parts of the world, and try to make up as much of the difference ourselves as we can, while working to perfect the kinds of alternatives to petroleum that will dramatically lessen the need for it altogether.

Also ... I just came across this recent item from the Salt Lake Tribune, and wanted to cite it to back up my earlier claim that Salazar's statement did not appear rule out future drilling in this area:

"Salazar did not rule out future development on those parcels, which cover about 103,000 acres near those parks. But he said the Obama administration wants future oil and gas drilling to harmonize with Utah's special landscapes."

I still say that I haven't heard a convincing argument that oil and gas development in this region will significantly degrade the environmental health of these national parks. All I've heard so far is a little NIMBYism. Even if it can be shown that oil and gas drilling won't ruin the view in these parks, I'm guessing that the environmentalists who oppose fossil fuel production on general principles will look for other reasons to oppose it.

Vladdy Vladdivladstock said...

I guess that oil under American soil could also be compared to money in the bank, however it's a resource that we shouldn't really want to take out of the bank because it hurts the environment when you take it out and when you use it.

But I agree with you, John, in that there really is zero long-term benefit from depleting our domestic oil resources. I also think it could be a very smart strategy move to hold on to our oil for as long as we possibly can, since it's only going to get more valuable and less abundant globally.

Chesapeake said...

But Vladdy, you've contradicted yourself in your argument. You say that you would save domestic oil for future use, but then you say that it should never be used. Which is it?

Developing domestic resources at home creates jobs. Isn't that what we'd like to do, especially during a recession?