It's a sinking feeling watching your country collectively making bad decisions over and over again. It seems like it's about to happen once more with the move to expand off-shore oil drilling and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This is happening because there hasn't been enough logical introspection into what is driving our thinking.
It's clear enough that the recent tripling in the price of gasoline and other petroleum products is the reason this issue has come up. But what are the assumptions behind the thinking on new drilling in environmentally sensitive areas? It seems that those who advocate this want to have it both ways, especially in regards to the issue of whether the world is experiencing the phenomenon known as peak oil. This idea is ridiculed by some, who point to extensive underground reserves and improved technology for extraction, as reasons why supply will meet demand for years and years to come. The price rise is therefore due to one, or a combination of reasons- speculation on the futures market, the shrinking value of the dollar, or increased demand in new markets.
But if there's no problem on the supply side then there's really no rationale for recklessly expanding drilling. Demand can be met through deliberate, routine increases in production. If the oil is abundant then there's no need to take unnecessary risks in extracting it.
So the argument for off-shore and ANWAR drilling has to be made on the opposite contention. That is that we are in fact facing a supply shortage. It would be great to get the drilling proponents to admit that this is the core of their argument. That, in itself would be a victory. But even if they were forthcoming about their rationale, would it still be a good argument?
If we really are on the downward slope of the normal curve, in the process of extracting the second half of the total quantity of oil that the earth will yield, what exactly is the point of speeding up that process? Scarcity will increase no matter how fervently we race to catch up with it. This is not a permanent solution to the problem we face- life without abundant sources of liquid portable energy.
It's important to remember that whatever domestic supplies that are developed will only be added to the pool of the world market. So there should be no illusion that we are somehow weaning ourselves from "foreign" oil. We should also remember that any decision to charge down the path of willy-nilly oil drilling won't yield any results for ten years. So we should be asking what other "real" solutions could we be pursuing with as great a vigor as some are now expending on pushing for increased drilling?
It seems to me that ten years is exactly the window that would be needed, with appropriate civic energy, to construct a comprehensive mass transit system in the United States. This would be comprised of high speed rail between cities, interurban lines that run from city centers into their hinterlands and subway, light rail or trolley service that would operate within cities.
Not only does this provide hope for relieving the fatal pressure we are currently exerting on the environment, but in the event of a shrinking automobile option, such a system may be all that stands between average people and total economic catastrophe. At the same time we could be moving along dozens of other fronts to develop alternative energy sources and conservation techniques.
There is also the argument that even as we transition to new transportation and energy paradigms we will still need oil to sustain and buffer us in the process. This is absolutely correct and shouldn't be de-emphasized. But the question remains what's the rush? If the oil under the coastal shelves will be a boon to us in ten years, it will also be a boon in fifty or a hundred years. Are our needs more important than our descendants' needs? A plan to attain these reserves should be implemented incrementally, cautious in its impact on the environment and it shouldn't pull our focus away from finding the real solutions to our predicament.