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Why “Drill Baby Drill” is “Dumb Baby Dumb”

Voters love easy solutions to their problems, so the idea of drilling domestically for more oil is an incredibly appealing solution to high gas prices.  Slogans like “Drill Baby Drill” provide great sound bites – especially when they come from the incredibly cute lips of Sarah Palin.  But if you scratch even slightly below the surface you realize that increased domestic drilling is a sound bite that does not make any sense.  Here are the problems:

  • Offshore drilling is not environmentally safe.  Proponents spend a lot of time talking about how new drilling technologies have made offshore drilling much safer and cleaner than earlier attempts, and perhaps it it true that we have better techniques. But one of the main problems is that drilling releases huge amounts of methane gas – one of the main causes of global warming.  There is no way around this – so even if we don’t have oil leaks – we do release toxins into the air when we drill.  Another huge environmental concern around offshore drilling is the issue of storms.  Offshore rigs are incredibly exposed to the massive storms that are hitting more frequently as a result of global warming (there is an irony there). When these rigs are damaged huge dangerous leaks can occur.
  • Even if we find more oil there is no guarantee the oil companies will use it to ease domestic supply issues.   Here’s an important point.  “We the people” don’t control the oil supplies – the oil companies do.  Giving the oil companies more access to oil does not necessarily mean they will sell that oil here. They will do as they are currently doing – sell the oil where they can derive the most profit.  Right now oil companies in the US are hoarding oil in hopes the price will go up.  If we allow them to drill and China is willing to pay more money, our oil gets shipped to China, and we have to pay the environmental price.
  • This is not an immediate solution – and it distracts us from the real solution.  Even the advocates for drilling agree that if we start now new drilling will not produce any meaningful results for ten years.  In a decade if we are still as reliant on fossil fuels as we are now we have a lot bigger problem.  If we concentrate on green technologies right now, in ten years we could eliminate the need for additional oil.  This new green effort would also bolster our economy, help save our planet, and again make us a world economic and social leader.  Continuing our addiction to oil is dangerous old thinking. As Thomas Friedman often points out, it is like investing in typewriters after we discover the computer.

So what do we do if we need an immediate oil fix?  Well, here’s an idea.  Lets quit exporting oil.  Strip away all the hype and you discover that the US is and always has been one of the world’s largest oil producers, and we currently export a huge amount of oil.  Which begs the question – if we are in such short supply that we need to drill, why are we exporting?  Lets look at the stats.  Last week the US imported 13,671,000 barrells of crude oil and petroleum products.  That’s a lot!  But, we exported 1,511,000 barrells.  If you look at the historical trend of imports and exports (available at http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/dnav/pet/pet_move_wkly_dc_NUS-Z00_mbblpd_w.htm) you discover that on average we export about 10% of our imports.  So you want a 10% increase in domestic oil capacity?  Quit exporting.  You want even lower prices on oil? Stop the oil companies from hoarding and driving up the price.

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