Congress Continues Oil Drilling Debate

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President Bush calls it the most promising source of untapped oil in America and the key to greater energy independence. But how much oil is there in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

Nobody really knows for certain.

As a Christmas week fight rages in Congress over whether to allow drilling along the narrow coastal strip of tundra 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, both sides are trying to use the refuge's oil estimates — as vague as they may be — to their advantage. Some of the rhetoric has little bearing on reality.

A drilling go-ahead was approved early Monday by the House, after it was included in a must-pass defense bill. But the issue remains uncertain in the Senate, where the defense measure is subject to a potential filibuster. Drilling supporters still are believed to fall short the 60 votes needed to overcome such a tactic.

"There is considerable uncertainty regarding both the size and quality of the oil resources that exist" in the refuge, according to an analysis by the Energy Information Administration, the government agency that tracks energy statistics.

Even more uncertain is how much of the oil will be worth going after. That will depend largely on the price of oil and the cost of development — including compliance with a slew of environmental restrictions likely to be imposed to protect the area's abundant wildlife.

A 1998 U.S. Geological Survey assessment still used today concluded it's almost certain there are at least 5.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil and possibly as much as 16 billion barrels (a 5 percent likelihood) beneath the refuge's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain.

The number most frequently cited is 10.4 billion barrels, the amount the report says is the "mean" — a statistical tool that simply says there's as good a chance to find less than that as there is to find more.

"There's no question there's a range of uncertainty involved that is quite large," says David Houseknecht, a government geologist involved in the 1998 study. Still, he calls it an "educated assessment" based on seismic studies conducted in the mid-1980s and an examination of adjacent geology where oil has been discovered.

The massive Prudhoe Bay oil field, which has produced 13 billion barrels since 1977 and has 3 billion left, sits 65 miles to the west and there are oil fields in Canada to the east.

"In many cases the oil is dripping out of those rocks," says Houseknecht.

But there has never been a well dug in the federal part of the refuge's coastal plain and only one well drilled in a smaller area within the refuge controlled by Alaska natives.

If that well, dug 22 years ago, indicates an oil bonanza, few know it. The results have been kept a closely held secret by the Alaska native corporation and a handful of people at two oil companies that did the drilling.

The oil numbers are "a ballpark, seat-of-the-pants estimate," concedes Roger Herrera of Arctic Power, the lobbying group that for years has tried to persuade Congress to approve oil development in the refuge. But given the adjacent geology, Herrera says, "you can logically expect" a lot of oil to be there.

While the Geological Survey's numbers reflect "technically recoverable" oil, how much of it would be worthwhile for companies to go after would depend on the price of oil, energy experts say. The study estimated that at $30 for each 42-gallon barrel, about three-fourths of the oil may be economically recoverable. At $55 a barrel, the amount would increase to more than 90 percent.

Whenever the debate heats up in Congress over whether to allow development of the Alaska refuge, both supporters and opponents sometimes come up with questionable comparisons.

There is enough oil in the refuge, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said recently, to supply every drop of oil needed by New Hampshire for 315 years, or Maine for 299 years. Her department also notes that it's enough oil for Washington, D.C., for 1,710 years.

Of course, whatever oil comes from Alaska will never make it to New England or the nation's capital, since by all accounts it would probably be bound for West Coast refineries — or possibly be shipped to Asia, as some lawmakers fear.

Drilling supporters in Congress also are fond of saying the refuge will produce 1 million barrels or more a day, equal to the oil received from Saudi Arabia. In fact, U.S. imports of Saudi oil have averaged 1.6 million barrels a day over the last five years, according to the Energy Information Administration.

At peak production, about 1 million barrels a day — roughly 5 percent of current U.S. daily consumption — would flow down the Alaska pipeline from the refuge, but that would not be a sustained amount. Assessments by both the Energy Department and the Geological Survey suggest peak flow probably would be limited to three to five years, depending on the amount of oil found, with lesser amounts being pumped longer.

"What is reasonable to say is that (the Alaska refuge) could represent between 5 and 10 percent of our national production for a period of 20 to 30 years," says Houseknecht, the government geologist. Domestic oil production averaged 8.6 million barrels a day in 2004.

Drilling opponents also have stretched the statistics.

Environmentalists cite a government study that suggests only 6.7 billion barrels of refuge oil might be economically recoverable if oil prices are $40 a barrel, and note that's "less than 7.3 billion barrels we consume every year."

By that reasoning, the 13 billion barrels of crude that have been pumped over 28 years from Prudhoe Bay, North America's largest oil field, makes up less than two years worth of oil.