Ferret out the details, and it turns out that Romney means North American energy self-sufficiency; Mexico and Canada would help. His campaign's White Paper on Energy claims that " surging U.S. energy production, combined with the resources of America's neighbors, can meet all of the continent's energy needs within a decade. " Exactly where would the oil come from?
Let's start with how much is out there. USGS estimates of US domestic resources, including both crude oil and liquids recovered from natural gas, including both proved reserves and the oil they think we'll ultimately discover and find ways to extract, amount to 162 billion barrels. That sounds vast, but is only 23 times present annual consumption. The US has already produced 210 billion barrels of oil; the udder is more than half empty.
Further, the old teats are not gushing the way they used to, which limits how fast US production can ramp up. Crude oil production peaked in 1970 and by 2005 had declined by nearly half, despite the development of the Alaska oil fields. Mexico's oil production has been in free fall since 2005, while Canada's production of what is called conventional crude oil--stuff pumped out of the ground--has trended downward since 1973.
Technology is opening resources, but development will be slow under any administration. The largest slice of estimated resources waits in the Gulf of Mexico, under deep water, where bringing in a well can cost billions of dollars. The next largest resources lie offshore of Alaska, mostly in the Arctic Ocean, a peculiarly fragile environment and one where obstacles to drilling are formidable, the season short; Shell's first try has been abandoned for this year.
Accordingly, the Energy Information Administration estimates the US will import oil in 2020. Even under the most favorable assumptions--high prices and the removal of all restrictions to drilling on public lands--imports would meet 39 percent of needs, not much better than at present.
Romney's North American independence really means heavy reliance on Canadian oil sands, and that means stripping subarctic forest and emitting more carbon than is typical in oil production.
The prospects for gas are better, largely because of fracking in shale, and the US could be a net exporter by 2020. Estimated resources are more than 60 times present consumption.
But gas is still a finite resource, and present consumption will grow. Already the US is switching electrical generation from coal to gas. Besides exports, there is talk of running vehicles on compressed natural gas and of synthesizing liquid fuels, a process that wastes much of the original energy content of the gas. Pursue all those goals, and gas soon peaks.
Talking points aside, Romney and Obama do differ on energy:
- Romney would remove restrictions on drilling public lands. The main impact would be to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, provided Congress repeals a decades-old ban. The USGS estimates 7.7 billion barrels of ultimately recoverable oil lie under the refuge, another large-sounding total, but equal to US oil demand over thirteen months. In practice, production would spread over many years, little of it before 2020.
- Romney would green light drilling off the beaches of the US Atlantic coast, for the sake of tapping resources that by generous estimates equal US demand for half a year.
- Romney would sweep aside environmental impact statements and immediately issue drilling leases in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico and offshore Alaska.
- Romney promises to open up coal, but gives no details. Because he accuses Obama of trying to bankrupt the industry, presumably Romney means to repeal the carbon-emissions limits that have encouraged power plants to switch from coal to gas.
- Romney would end subsidies for renewable energy. As a reason he mouths platitudes about a level playing field, as if no tax breaks existed for fossil fuels, no government loan guarantees and liability limits for nuclear power.
- On energy efficiency, Romney's silence echoes.