Every time the price of oil goes up, you hear calls on the right that the solution is to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for drilling.
And it sounds like a rational idea, until you start looking at the numbers. Then it begins to look like trying to keep the Titanic from sinking by having the passengers bail water with teacups.
The U.S. Department of Energy released an analysis last month on the impact of drilling for oil in ANWR. It concluded that it might save consumers a few cents a gallon, if (and this is a huge if) the Saudis and other big oil producers don't cut their production to keep prices high.
At peak production, it is estimated that ANWR might produce 780,000 barrels of oil a day. That's about 7 percent of what America imports from other countries. It's not a trivial amount to be sure, and it would have economic benefits for this country, especially for Alaskans.
But then comes the kicker. If we started today, we wouldn't likely see any oil for 10 years, and the DOE report estimates it would be another three or four years before it hits peak production.
And there is a huge caveat to this estimate. The report states: "The 10-year timeline for developing ANWR petroleum resources assumes that there is no protracted legal battle in approving the BLM's draft Environmental Impact Statement, the BLM's approval to collect seismic data, or the BLM's approval of a specific lease-development proposal."
In other words, if no one sues, we might see our gas prices drop by a few pennies in 2021. And of course, there will be lots of lawsuits from every environmental group under the sun, so you can kiss that 10-year timeline good-bye.
The entire effort is a distraction, a meaningless political ploy like George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism."
But now Bush and his chosen successor John McCain have a new oil patch in their sights: America's coastline.
But new offshore drilling has the same problems as ANWR. It's too little, too late to make a serious impact on gas prices, though it may have a big impact on McCain's election chances. The important swing state of Florida is where a big chunk of those offshore reserves are located, and Floridians don't want oil drilling anywhere near the beaches that make up a huge part of the state's economy. Even First Brother Jeb Bush is against offshore drilling.
The biggest red herring in this debate may be the belief that opening up these areas will actually mean the oil companies will start producing a lot of oil from them. The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources released a report this month that shows that there are 68 million acres of federal land leased by oil and gas companies that are not being exploited. This land could produce an estimated 4.8 million barrels of oil a day, six times what could be pumped out of ANWR.
Why aren't the oil companies drilling on this land they already have rights to? It's pretty obvious their interest is in locking up these oil reserves and then dishing them out in limited amounts in order to keep prices high.
President Bush is right about one thing. We are addicted to oil, and beholden to a gang of dangerous Middle East oil suppliers who use our money to hurt us, and their multinational oil corporation partners who keep us begging for more.
But you can't break an addiction by creating new supply lines for your drug of choice. You break it by going the other way, using less oil and developing new energy sources.
We already have the technology to break this addiction, in less time than it would take to get the first drop of oil out of ANWR. What we need now is the will to make this change. And that is why this debate about drilling for more oil is so destructive to our national interests. It feeds our addiction, and keeps us from making the changes that we need to move on to a better, brighter future.
Most drug addicts can't quit until they hit rock bottom. Will America have to do the same? Will we have to spoil our environment before we break this addiction? Or will it be the love of our natural treasures that turns us around? Wouldn't it be ironic if the herds of caribou roaming ANWR are what save us from ourselves?
-Kirk Caraway writes for Swift Communications, Inc. He can be reached through his blog at http://kirkcaraway.com.