RALEIGH Ė I have no idea whether oil shale in the Western United States can economically generate the equivalent of 2 trillion barrels of oil, as some experts claim. But I do know that environmental extremists and their allies in Congress donít care whether this claim is true. Theyíre against the idea either way.
Just to put a potential of 2 trillion barrels in context, thatís about 265 times the current annual U.S. consumption of oil. Even adjusting for rapid growth in population and household spending, itís reasonable to say that if domestic oil shale can deliver on its promise, it would fuel American vehicles, the plastics industry, and other uses for nearly two centuries while transforming the world fuel market and the international balance of power.
Of course, itís possible that companies seeking opportunities to tap oil-shale resources in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and elsewhere are overestimating the payoff, intentionally or unintentionally. There appears to be a lot of debate about how high the world price of oil must remain to make shale conversion a viable alternative. Some say it must exceed $100 a barrel. Others say it might be feasible at a lower amount, say $85. Whatís important to remember, however, is that this question, while critical to the future of energy prices and the American economy, doesnít really matter to those politicians and activists who continue to obstruct oil-shale recovery.
Consider the alternatives. If world oil prices arenít destined to stay above $100 a barrel for many years to come, most of us would cheer Ė but many self-styled environmentalists will curse the Fates. Theyíve long welcomed the prospect of higher oil prices as a means of pressuring consumers to drive less, consume less, and choose alternatives. They are loathe to admit that oil prices may not stay high enough in the long run to make oil-shale conversion viable, because to do so would be to admit that their own pet schemes wonít be viable, either. Instead, they must assert Ė and, it seems, drastically exaggerate Ė the potential environmental risks of oil-share recovery on Western lands.
If, on the other hand, persistently high oil prices will make oil shale economical, activists would also be upset. Preferring a radical change in lifestyles to socialize the economy and avert what they believe would be catastrophic global warming in the future, they certainly donít want to see abundant fossil fuels derived from another source, oil shale, even though it would be a domestic source and generate lots of new jobs and federal leasing revenues.
Itís this kind of thinking that currently has environmental groups and their allies politically on the run. Most voters in North Carolina and other states list the economy as their number-one election issue this year, and by far the most-significant factor driving public worries about the economy is the price of motor fuels. For some, rising prices for electricity and heating oil also rankle. They donít want to hear a lecture about how higher energy prices might be good for them, by advancing New Urbanist fantasies about regional land-use planning or shaving a few hundreds of a degree off the average global temperature in 50 years. Voters want action to bring more energy supplies to market, research new technologies, and alleviate bottlenecks in refining and in the electrical grid.
Large majorities of North Carolina voters favor offshore drilling for oil and natural gas. They donít do so out of some fealty to oil companies, whom they dislike about as much as they dislike Congress and the president. Voters want solutions that donít threaten to wrench the economy into recession or limit their own choices and quality of life. With proper oversight, exploration of domestic fuel sources would be both wise policy and good politics.
Which is why some environmental activists, having been exultant just months ago, are now gnashing their teeth.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.