NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 1, 2009

One anti-drilling argument often invoked by environmentalists is that either America or the world is running out of oil.  Neither assertion is true, says columnist Jonah Goldberg.

For example, in the 1970s, the Club of Rome guaranteed that we'd run out of oil by now. 

Yet the amount of available oil has expanded greatly since then, says Goldberg:

  • According to U.S. Geological Survey estimates, we've got just shy of 6 trillion barrels of oil or its equivalent.
  • Ronald Bailey, Reason magazine's science correspondent, writes that this means 82 percent of the world's endowment of oil and gas resources remain to be used.
  • Bailey, who did a thorough survey of the "peak oil" debate, found that most of the world's leading analysts and agencies simply do not think we are running out of oil.

The cycle keeps repeating itself, says Goldberg:

  • In 1995 the USGS said that the Bakken formation, in North Dakota and Montana, had a modest amount of oil; it now believes there are 3 to 4 billion barrels there -- 25 times the 1995 estimate.
  • The Minerals Management Service (MMS) insisted in 1987 that there were a "mere" 9 billion barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico; 20 years later that estimate is up to 45 billion.
  • Prudhoe Bay in Alaska has already generated 15 billion barrels of oil and natural-gas liquids even though the government insisted the needle would hit empty at 9 billion; right now, the MMS conservatively guesses that the Atlantic and Pacific Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) has 14.3 billion barrels of oil and 55 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

One of the reasons the numbers keep going up is that we've gotten so much better at finding oil, thanks to seismic imaging and the like.  Ever-improving technology also allows us to get oil we once thought was too hard to reach.  We haven't figured out how to extract oil from shale in environmentally safe and economically feasible ways -- yet -- but estimates put the amount of shale oil in the Intermountain West at 1.2 to 1.8 trillion barrels.  If we could recover 800 billion barrels of that, America would have three times Saudi Arabia's oil stockpile, says Goldberg.

Source: Jonah Goldberg, "Fossil Future," National Review, July 2009.

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