Friday, June 11, 2010

Burning Down the House: Oil in the Arctic Circle

from Arctic Circle, a memoir by Robert Leonard Reid

“The coastal plain is where the polar bear dens and the caribou vacations, and where millions of migratory birds nest during a blink-of-an-eye summer. It’s also where the oil is. No one knows exactly how much is there, but it’s a lot. Oil industry sources put the number as high as sixteen billion barrels. If they’re right, refuge reserves exceed those of Prudhoe Bay, the largest-known oil field in North America. Drilling opponents have adopted a much smaller figure. By their estimate the refuge holds about an eight-month supply of oil for the United States (assuming that only refuge oil were used). An equivalent amount could be saved — and drilling foregone — by increasing the fuel efficiency of every vehicle in the United States by just two miles per gallon.

The United States Geological Survey conducted exhaustive analyses of the relevant seismic data and in 2000 published what may be the closest we’ll get to an impartial estimate of the coastal plain’s oil potential. The survey estimated a 95 percent chance that 1.9 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil will be found; a 50 percent chance that 5.3 billion barrels will be found; and a 5 percent chance that 9.4 billion barrels will be found. The only way to assess the accuracy of such predictions, of course, is to drill. This idea strikes some people as sensible, and others as akin to burning down a house to see if it is fireproof.”

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