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Drilling Deeper

This past Wednesday, President Bush called for ending a federal ban on offshore oil drilling, two days after John McCain flip-flopped to take the same position. The idea may or may not have merit in the long run, but what it won't do is lower gas prices in the short term: The Department of Energy estimates that it would take more than 20 years for either production levels or prices to be affected by a repeal of the ban on offshore drilling. Because the amount of oil at stake is so tiny (about 19 billion barrels, equivalent to around seven months of global consumption), it won't do much at all to ease jitters or help deflate a bubble in oil markets.

Look on the bright side, though: At least it wasn't the worst idea Bush proposed in his energy speech. He also urged Congress to allow oil shale leasing on federal lands in the Green River basin in Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming. Unlike the offshore-drilling idea, oil shale development, at least in theory, promises a lot of oil: The Green River basin alone may hold 800 billion recoverable barrels.

Unfortunately, the idea has a number of problems. For one thing, nobody really knows how to do it: Bob Loucks, a former oil shale production manager, told Environmental Science and Technology that, "[d]espite all the attempts to develop a shale-oil industry in the U.S. over the past 100 years, the fact remains that no proven method exists for efficiently removing the oil from the rock." And, whereas oil companies say they can drill for conventional oil in sensitive areas without damaging the environment, hardly anyone even bothers making that claim when it comes to oil shale development, which by its very nature requires disturbing huge tracts of land. It also usually results in toxic minerals leaching into groundwater--which drains into the Green River and could contaminate the rest of the Colorado basin. Suffice it to say that there are lots of people in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Diego who would not be pleased.

And then there are greenhouse gases: If you're a fan of regular fossil-fuel carbon emissions, you'll love oil shale. According to a study by U.C. Berkeley's Adam Brandt, oil shale produces between 27 and 52 percent more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy than conventional oil, in large part because of the enormous energy inputs required to heat the rock in order to yield oil. Indeed, it takes so much energy in other forms (in particular, electricity from coal) to recover oil from shale that the net energy benefit ends up being much smaller than it first appears. Congress is already doing plenty to promote inefficient, environmentally unsound sources of energy; the last thing it needs is another sham solution.

By The Editors