You Can’t Drill a Way to Cheap Gas

The combination of a recovering US economy, growing demand for oil in the developing world, and political unrest in oil-producing nations has sent gasoline prices climbing again. In response right-wing political pundits have begun a familiar chant: Drill baby, drill. It isn’t surprising Republican lawmakers and Democrats with close ties to the politically powerful oil industry are trying to use gas prices as an excuse for expanded domestic drilling. But it is important to be clear about one thing: opening new areas in the US to oil drilling and exploration will never make us energy independent. In fact it won’t even put a dent in gas prices anytime soon.

Right now the United States imports approximately 11.5 million barrels of oil every day from other countries, including oil-producing nations from Saudi Arabia to Canada. According to the national Energy Information Agency, opening all the untapped oil reserves in the US could produce at most one or two million barrels per day—and it would take ten years to get to this point. FOX News and Sarah Palin aside, there is simply no way the US can drill its way to energy independence. If we are serious about lowering the price of gasoline, we should invest in making cars more fuel-efficient and ramping up renewable energy development.

All this is of course quite aside from the local and regional environmental impacts of increased oil drilling. Last year’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico showed the oil industry’s drilling safety standards are still woefully inadequate. Since the BP spill Congress has declined to pass an oil spill response bill, meaning there has been no great increase in industry oversight since that disaster. Drilling for more oil means accepting the reality that another major oil spill will at some point occur. And as oil companies venture into more treacherous areas, the difficulties involved in cleaning up a spill will skyrocket.

Finally let’s not forget that oil is a commodity traded on the international market, meaning US production has very little impact on the price of gasoline. Oil extracted from US reserves will have to compete on the market with cheap oil from Saudi Arabia. In fact there is no guarantee US oil will even be sold in the United States—especially in Alaska, oil companies would be well-positioned to start shipping US oil to the growing economies of eastern Asia.

Increasing domestic oil drilling would affect US gas prices hardly if at all, and then only after many years have passed. That’s time the US could instead spend investing in renewable energy sources and manufacturing more efficient cars. Both those steps would produce much more tangible and immediate impacts for consumers while reducing the amount drivers pay at the pump. With the shift to a clean economy, the risk of disasters like the BP oil spill would go down. It’s time to give up once and for all the idea of drilling our way to low gas prices, and quickly embrace a clean energy future instead.

Photo credit: Natalie Maynor