By ZACHARY COILE
San Francisco Chronicle
September 06, 2005
In the political fight in Washington, with Congress expected to vote this month to allow drilling in the refuge, advocates on both sides cite the same source for their arguments: an assessment of oil in the refuge by the U.S. Geological Survey, first published in 1987 and updated in 1998.
Proponents of drilling cite estimates as high as 16 billion barrels of oil, even though geologists say the number is unrealistic. Opponents say the refuge could contain less than 3 billion barrels of oil, though studies suggest that may be a vast understatement.
"Obviously, partisans - people who are trying to convince you of something - will tend to choose the number that is most effective for their cause," said Jonathan Koomey, a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a visiting engineering professor at Stanford University, who wrote a report about the various estimates of oil reserves in the refuge.
The truth is that geologists have only a rough idea of how much oil and natural gas may be trapped in pockets beneath the surface of the refuge based on seismic tests and a small amount of exploratory drilling conducted years ago, Koomey said.
"They haven't done the really detailed exploratory drilling that would allow you to really understand the geology and get it down to a fine art," he said. "These estimates are based on some relatively modest experimental drilling done decades ago. ... There is still a lot of uncertainty about what is there."
Regardless of the ultimate amount, all sides in the debate concede one fact: Drilling in the refuge would not end America's long-standing dependence on foreign oil.
According to the latest Energy Information Administration forecast, oil supplies flowing from the refuge - at peak production in 2025 - would lower America's dependence on foreign oil from 70 percent to 66 percent.
Environmentalists say that it's not worth the potential damage to a wildlife refuge that is home to caribou, polars bears and millions of migratory birds.
In Alaska, where oil money fuels the economy and last year produced an annual dividend check of $919.84 for each resident, few have doubts about the amount of oil under the refuge - or the reason to drill for it.
"People say, 'There's no oil up there,' " said Ken Ludy, a land surveyor who was buying supplies at the general store in Deadhorse for a job on Alaska's oil-rich North Slope. "Oil companies spend millions of dollars on research before they invest in a new oil field. Do you think they would drill if they thought there was no oil?"
Advocates argue that even a moderate amount of oil would be worthwhile as world demand jumps and fears intensify that rising demand may outstrip oil supplies.
If the oil were flowing from the refuge at that peak level today, it would account for more than 9 percent of the 9.1 million barrels used every day by Americans to fuel their cars, trucks and SUVs.
However, even if Congress approves drilling this fall, oil would not begin to flow for seven to 10 years, and the oil field would not reach peak production for two decades.
Opponents of drilling are urging the Congress to instead raise fuel-economy standards. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that increasing the average fuel economy of cars and light trucks to 36 miles per gallon over the next decade would save at least three times as much oil as would flow from the refuge by 2020.
"This is just based on using technologies that automakers have already developed," said David Friedman, research director for the group's Clean Vehicles program. "It doesn't even tap into hybrids. This is technology that is on the road today."
The last significant exploration on the coastal plain was a test well drilled in 1986 on private land owned by Arctic Slope Regional Corp., a native Inupiat Eskimo company. The corporation and its private sector partners, BP and ChevronTexaco, have not made the results public, saying the information is proprietary.
Federal geologists are basing their estimates mostly on seismic testing of the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, which is at the northernmost tip of the 19 million-acre refuge.
Their 1998 report offers only broad ranges of how much oil is technically recoverable - accessible using current technology - and how much is economically recoverable - or cost-effective to drill, given the high costs of producing and shipping oil from the North Slope.
Most politicians who favor drilling cite the report's findings about how much oil is technically recoverable: an estimated 5.7 to 16 billion barrels, or a mean figure of 10.4 billion barrels.
But those figures are widely used without a crucial scientific caveat about probabilities. According to the report, there is a 95 percent probability of finding 5.7 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil, but only a 5 percent probability - a 1 in 20 chance - of finding 16 billion barrels. There's a 50 percent chance of finding 10.4 billion barrels.
The figures are also somewhat misleading, Koomey said, because they include not only federal lands of the coastal plain but also adjacent native- owned lands and state lands that could be drilled as part of the project.
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