The president likes to refer to our so-called “proven” reserves — oil that can be recovered with relative certainty given today’s economic, technological, and regulatory constraints. It’s oil that companies have already discovered, and that they can drill up profitably without breaking the law. Oil in areas where drilling is banned, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, isn’t included. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s most recent estimates, the United States has roughly 20 billion barrels of these reserves, around 2 percent of the global total. But proven reserves are only a small part of the petroleum picture, and don’t give us a very accurate picture of future supply.
That’s where the Republican criticism comes in. This week, the U.S. Geological Survey released a study of the world’s “undiscovered, technically recoverable” oil resources. It sounds complicated, but is relatively simple. It’s oil we haven’t actually found, but believe is there based on geological studies, and think we can get at with current drilling technology, regardless of the legal or economic issues. The new survey did not include the United States, but Republicans have combined its results with previous estimates showing we have 198 billion barrels of this kind of oil. […]
Now, here’s where the USGS figures really fall short: They ignore a massive chunk of the world’s oil potential future resources. The study looks at conventional oil. That’s regular old black gold, the kind that made Jed Clampett and that nutjob from There Will Be Blood rich. But there are many other kinds of oil, which get lumped into a category called “unconventional oil.” That includes the billions of barrels of tar sands oil in Canada, heavy oil in Venezuela, and shale oil in North Dakota.
American energy independence makes for great political rhetoric. And not much else.
We can thank President Nixon for the term. During the dark days of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, he publicly vowed to wean the United States off foreign energy sources by the end of the decade, an initiative he dubbed “Project Independence.” While things didn’t quite pan out the way he imagined, the dream he conjured has lived on with presidents from both parties ever since.
These days, though, it’s not just politicians who are dreaming. Over the last year, it’s become respectable — even chic, in a geeky, Washington think-tank sort of way — to suggest that the United States might indeed be close to kicking its foreign energy habit. Take this Bloomberg headline from Monday: “America Gaining Energy Independence.” Or this Financial Times article from October: “Pendulum Swings On American Oil Independence.” Daniel Yergin, the renowned oil analyst and Pulitzer Prize winner, now argues that the center of world oil production may be moving from the Middle East to the Western hemisphere.
But even if we’re approaching energy independence, the chances of ever actually getting there are rather slim, especially if our economy is still running on oil in 20 years. Read more.
It’s business as usual in the Gulf of Mexico. But in the year since the Gulf oil spill was stopped, there have been more than 5,000 new oil and hazardous materials spills in the Gulf region. This is a map of the 3,000 reports that can be charted.
Before J.R. Ewing, or the Beverly Hillbillies, or even John D. Rockefeller, there was Coal Oil Johnny. He was the first great cautionary tale of the oil age — and his name would resound in popular culture for more than half a century after he made and lost his fortune in the 1860s.
Read the whole story of Coal Oil Johnny here.