Courtesy Reuters

Fuzzy Math

By Lucian B. Platt

Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins ("Fool's Gold in Alaska," July/August 2001) claim that drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is bad, unnecessary, and probably uneconomical. Many of their points are wrong, and the decision as to whether to drill in the ANWR should be based on better information.

Planning for worldwide supply continuing for decades has been one of the great strengths of the more than trillion-dollar global oil industry. There seems to have been no time or place in which the companies failed to deliver adequate supply; every interruption has been caused by government interference.

The search for oil takes place worldwide and has been successful on every continent except Antarctica. Unlike with agricultural commodities, a new crop of which can be grown on the same field next year, oil fields get emptied. New ones must be found even if world use declines. But world use goes up decade after decade, even with an occasional downturn year.

Simple arithmetic applied to the figures that Lovins and Lovins offer indicates the following: from 1977 to 1985 world production of oil fell by 6 million barrels per day while production by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries dropped by 13 million barrels per day, so daily non-OPEC production went up 7 million barrels per day, from 30 million in 1977 to 37 million in 1985. These millions of barrels come from new producing areas, including the North Sea, offshore Australia, and the North Slope of Alaska -- places where previous capital investment finally began paying off.

The authors also assert that "the refuge is unlikely to hold economically recoverable oil." They cite the conservative estimate of the U.S. government that 3.2 billion barrels is the likely yield from the refuge, but the oil companies suggest two or three times as much.

Regarding the Alaskan pipeline, the authors claim that "[t]hat one fragile link, soon to be geriatric, would then bring as much oil to U.S. refineries as now flows through the Strait of Hormuz -- a choke point that is harder to disrupt, is easier to fix, and has alternative routes." But the pipeline has never broken, even though people have caused minor damage three times. The latest attempt, the first in 20 years, was caused by gunfire on October 4, 2001. Fifty previous shots had not penetrated this tough pipe. It is not close to being geriatric; the company that runs it says it is not yet through even half of its useful life.

The statement that the pipeline is only half-full is sloppy writing at best. The contents could not be pumped up hill and down dale if the pipe were only half-full. And the statement that "Canada, which shares threatened wildlife, also opposes drilling" neglects to recognize that the threatened wildlife turns out to be thriving -- the caribou population, for example, has doubled in the 24 years of pipeline pumping. The reason Canada opposes new development in northern Alaska relates to its desire to have its own pipeline built to the south along the Mackenzie River.

One of the worst overstatements is this: "If one of its vital pumping stations were attacked in the winter, its nine million barrels of hot oil could congeal into the world's largest Chapstick." This is cute phrasing but does not meet a reality check. Oil enters the pipeline at 116 degrees Fahrenheit and arrives about a week later in Valdez at 63 degrees. This flow has been going on for 24 years. Oil in the 400 miles of buried pipe would not congeal even if it sat for a year. Moreover, the seven pumping stations have shunts to deal with any breakdown. Oil will flow after repairs of any conceivable disruption of the pipe.

Lovins and Lovins assert that "[i]f three or four percent of all U.S. cars were as efficient as today's hybrid models, they would save the equivalent of all the refuge's oil. In all, many tens of times more oil is available -- sooner, more surely, and more cheaply -- from proven energy efficiency." These claims do not work. If four percent of all U.S. cars stopped completely, never mind efficiency, the savings would be 400,000 barrels per day, or 146 million barrels per year. It would take 22 years of several million fewer cars on the road to save the amount of oil estimated to be in the refuge. Achieving great efficiency soon is impossible because fewer than 10 percent of the cars on the road are replaced each year; the other 90 percent continue in their inefficient ways. Meanwhile, the energy alternative of fuel cells for cars is not a near-term prospect according to four companies involved in fuel-cell research: Ballard, Manhattan Scientifics, Mechanical Technology, and Medis Technologies. Until there are realistic options, civilization needs the flow of new oil.


Professor of Geology Emeritus, Bryn Mawr College

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