Arctic Energy On Parade

The U.S. Geological Survey just released some heartening news for politicians who are chomping at the bit to allow an offshore drilling bonanza in the Arctic, including fragile places such as the Chukchi Sea (see "Polar Distress," May 2008). The results of a 4-year assessment released last week indicate that up to 1/5th of the world's unexplored oil and gas reserves lie north of the Arctic Circle, with most of this offshore. What's more, areas off the coast of Alaska hold about a third of these supplies.  “For a variety of reasons, the possibility of oil and gas exploration in the Arctic has become much less hypothetical than it once was,” said USGS geologist Donald L. Gautier, as reported in The New York Times

No kidding. And figures like these mean bad news for the Arctic. I'm not an expert, but it seems somewhat perverse that it is the part of the world being hit hardest by climate change where we want to extract more fuel to add to the fire. 

The report includes only "technically recoverable" reserves, or those that  can be reached with existing technology but does not take into account whether it will be economically feasible to do so. But just because something is within our reach, does it mean that we should take it? Will we end up wringing every last drop of those 90 billion oil barrels and 1,500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas? As long as there continues to be economic incentive to recover these reserves, I have a feeling the answer will be yes. 

While these numbers may seem huge, here's some perspective. At today's global consumption rate, these combined oil and gas reserves would last us about 3 years. Three years? That doesn't seem like a very good long-term plan, even if you can't stand even one more day of $4 gasoline. And as the sheen of oil still gleans on the Mississippi River, a result of the recent spill, I wonder whether three more years of energy is worth it. 

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