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High Gas Prices: Would New Drilling Or Keystone XL Really Help?

High oil prices have given Republicans the opportunity to do some Obama-bashing on energy. Newt Gingrich is unequivocal in assigning blame: Earlier this month he wrote that “the fact that Americans must cope with ballooning gas prices and energy vulnerability while living in a country with some of the richest untapped energy resources on the planet is an absurdity that can only be accomplished by bad government.” His fellow GOP hopefuls are all singing a similar tune: If only we would approve projects like the Keystone XL pipeline and allow fracking, our days of high prices at the pump would be over. But will developing domestic oil really lead to the results that Republicans claim?

According to a 2009 American Scientist article, the “big question about oil is not how much is left in the ground (the answer is a lot) but how much can be extracted at a significant energy profit.” This is the problem when it comes to deriving oil from shale: It takes a lot of energy to extract and process oil from the sources available—oil shale and shale plays. As the Department of Energy’s Office of Petroleum points out, “Unconventional fuels require additional processing steps (mining, heating, upgrading) to recover and convert these resources to fuels. These steps consume energy and lower the energy efficiency relative to conventional oil.” In fact, data from a 2008 paper suggests that it’s ten times less efficient to derive oil from oil shale than it is from conventional rigs. Other methods, like recovering oil from shale plays or tar sands (the source of the oil at the mouth of the Keystone XL pipeline) also provide less net available energy compared to oil from conventional rigs. Even with advances in technology, efficiency might struggle to keep up, since “as the highest grade and most accessible deposits” are used up, we need more and more intensive methods to produce fuel from the remaining resources. But in the end, it might not matter that much—after all, under President Gingrich we’ll probably be drilling on the moon.