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By Michael R. Fox Ph.D
May 7, 2008

Congress is failing to deal squarely with the problem of escalating oil prices. Given the increase in world oil demand and the virtual lack of surplus production capacity, a fundamental change in our nation’s energy policy is needed.

Instead of refusing to allow drilling for oil and natural gas on what it considers environmentally sensitive federal lands and coastal waters, Congress should open them up. Shutting away areas that hold a large part of the estimated 112 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 656 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the United States is a luxury we can no longer afford, not when federal policy constrains energy production and contributes to rising energy costs for the American consumer.

What’s necessary now is for the House and Senate to expand access to abundant oil and gas supplies in the Western states, the Alaskan wilderness and off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Increasing domestic oil production alone might not be enough to reduce energy prices, but it would lessen our dependence on foreign oil. And if developing U.S. oil resources were to be accompanied by an improvement in energy efficiency – last year Congress increased fuel economy standards for new cars and light trucks – the result could make a difference.

Today drilling is done in an environmentally responsible way. Technological advances, ranging from four-dimensional seismic imaging to drilling horizontal wells two miles beneath the ground, have led to a revolution in lifting oil. In recent decades, there has been little or no environmental damage from offshore drilling in U.S. coastal waters.

Experience with oil production on Alaska’s North Slope has shown that it can be recovered in some of the most challenging conditions encountered anywhere in the world. Proven oil reserves on the North Slope were initially estimated to be 9 billion barrels, but output to date has been 15 billion barrels, and the area is still producing oil that’s 15 percent of U.S. production.

Altogether, the North Slope could provide as much as 36 billion barrels of oil and 137 trillion cubic feet of natural gas – enough to help meet America’s energy needs for decades – if Congress would lift the barriers to production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is about 30,000 square miles, but the area where drilling would take place is roughly the size of a large airport.

To shore up domestic production – which has been declining since the early 1970’s — oil companies are returning to old or mature fields. Typically, companies produced one barrel for every three they found. Two barrels would be left behind, either because they were too hard to pump out or because the cost was too high.

Now, the oil industry is investing billions of dollars in technology to perfect so-called secondary and tertiary recovery methods – such as injecting carbon dioxide and other gases and liquids into oil fields to force more of the oil out. Experts believe that companies will be able to recover as much as 80 percent of the oil from a field, more than double the average recovery rate.

Producers are also using new technology to reach oil deposits in an area of North Dakota and Montana and extending into Canada that holds some of the largest potential resources in North America. Known as the Bakken Formation, the oil is locked away in shale and other rocks that were once considered too difficult to penetrate. But new techniques –seismic imaging and computer-aided drilling, for example — are making a difference. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Bakken Formation holds up to 4.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

Energy is the lifeblood of our economy. As a nation, we need to redouble our efforts to develop energy technologies. But innovation and technology alone are not enough. Companies also need virgin territories to explore. By opening up more federal lands and 85 percent of the areas off the lower 48 states that are closed to drilling, Congress can help reduce our risky reliance on imported oil and put energy security on the right track.

Michael R. Fox, Ph.D., a science and energy reporter for Hawaii Reporter and a science analyst for the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, is retired and now lives in Eastern Washington. He has nearly 40 years experience in the energy field, and has taught chemistry and energy at the university level.