Chill, Baby, Chill

Thoughts on energy independence and the Republican National Convention

Hearing Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the Republican VP nominee, say she’d start laying more pipeline and expanding oil and gas exploration in January (if elected) was a little surprising. But hearing an entire stadium of people with little red signs chant, “Drill, baby, drill!” afterwards was the real shocker.

The rationale seems to be that tapping our own oil and gas reserves will give us the resources we need to stop relying on Middle Eastern (or Russian, or Venezuelan) oil. At its very root that’s misleading: The U.S. doesn’t have enough oil to make us independent, no matter how you slice it. (Try this: According to the Department of Energy, the U.S. has between 20 and 30 billion barrels of oil in reserve; we consume 7.5 billion barrels each year. Some quick number crunching reveals that if we tapped all our oil resources, we’d have enough to last us just under five years at most--assuming consumption doesn’t increase.)

We can’t, of course, quit oil cold turkey; even a renewable-energy future will take time and weaning. And maybe drilling’s a good thing for us: We’ll finally understand what it’s like to see rigs everywhere and pay the consequences (instead of outsourcing them to Nigeria) of our own oil spills and flare-ups.

But, but…How was a whole convention moved to “Drill, baby, drill”? And was it purely coincidental that the leader of that rallying cry (well, really, Giuliani Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele started it) was from Alaska, the focal point of almost every drilling debate?

When I worked in Alaska, I saw this seeming paradox firsthand: Surrounded by sublime beauty, many Alaskans were totally…practical about it. Talk to people who worked on the 800-mile Trans-Alaska pipeline in the 1970s, and they’ll tell you the pay was phenomenal. (Not that it wasn’t hard, cold work.) They’re the ones who live there, and they’re the ones who use that land, as much for livelihood as for recreation—and as much as tourism’s touted, there’s very little that’s clean about a supersized cruise ship, and there’s very little income (aside from industry) for the people who live in the lost little towns too landlocked or mundane or just plain cold to attract even the most dedicated traveler.

Are Alaska's reserves just Alaska's? Or are they our nation’s? Do we have the right to tell Alaskans what to do with their wild lands? And is energy independence really a realistic—or even desirable—goal? In any case, we can’t achieve it by drilling, baby, so it’s time for a new slogan. 

Photo courtesy CDC.

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