The Real Threat to our Energy Supplies

by | Oct 8, 2002

What threatens us is not any physical scarcity, but a politically created one.

The war on terrorism, with its potential effects on the supply of Mideast oil, has seemingly generated a debate over America’s energy policy. But the only two sides we hear are the environmentalists, who exhort us to use less oil, and the timid supporters of the oil industry–who are conceding environmentalism’s basic premise.

After the terrorist attacks on 9/11 made clear the need for the United States to take military action in the Mideast, critics alleged a need for the country to reduce energy consumption. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., for example, called on Congress to ‘reduce our dependency [on foreign oil]’ by raising fuel-efficiency standards. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman argued that it was time ‘to prevent another dangerous surge in oil consumption.’ The Union of Concerned Scientists insisted that we ‘secure our energy future” by ‘reduc[ing] our reliance on imported and domestic oil.’

The ostensible rationale for cutting energy consumption is that America is running out of oil. Environmentalists point to the 33% decline in domestic production of crude oil over the last 25 years as a sign of impending scarcity. Given the new potential disruptions in Mideast supplies, they say, the only solution is for Americans to sacrifice their standard of living and make do with less.

As irrational as that ‘solution’ is, a close inspection of the facts reveals a far more insidious agenda. The environmentalists’ actual premise is not that we are running out of oil–but that the oil companies should be stopped from finding it.

Consider the controversy in January of this year that led Congress to kill a proposal for opening drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR). In 1998 the United States Geological Survey found that ANWR’s Coastal Plain region contains between 11.6 and 31.5 billion barrels of oil–potentially 10% of U.S. consumption for the next 30 years. But ANWR is legally off-limits to drilling. Why?

America’s vast Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) contains approximately 46 billion barrels of oil, according to the Minerals Management Service. There, too, environmental controls severely restrict access to the oil. The voices alleging that supply is running short are the same ones opposing new exploration and development. For thirty years, environmentalists have been sealing off millions of acres of oil-laden reserves–thereby creating the decreasing domestic supply. Again, why?

Their concern about problems like oil spills is just a façade. Environmentalists are resistant to any technological advances that minimize the possibility of such occurrences. And they are utterly indifferent to all the hardships caused by the absence of petroleum products that would otherwise be available. What they really believe is that energy production per se is undesirable, because it ‘violates’ the earth’s natural state. According to the Sierra Club, bringing technology to ANWR would ‘destroy the wilderness even if [drilling] is carried on with immaculate care.’ The Alaska Wilderness League declares that ‘drilling the wildest place in America is objectionable no matter how it’s packaged.’ And Senator Joseph Lieberman says ANWR development ‘would cause irreversible damage to one of God’s most awesome creations.’ What damage? The ‘damage’ of reshaping nature to serve human needs.

The ruse, by now, should be clear. What threatens us is not any physical scarcity, but a politically created one. Environmentalists want us to produce, and consume, less energy, because they value untouched nature above human comfort. The declaration by the radical group Earth First that our ‘industrial culture must be dismantled,’ is a consistent application of environmentalist ideology.

Almost as bad, though, is the capitulation by the alleged defenders of energy development. The American Petroleum Institute, for instance, argued for ANWR development–with the appeasing claim that the wildlife there will remain unaffected. And Congressional Republicans, instead of categorically upholding man’s right to use nature to sustain his life, quibbled with their opponents over whether ANWR will yield 30 or 13 billion barrels of oil.

The ‘defenders’ of energy production should assert that the production of even a single barrel of oil should not be stopped by a wish to preserve the caribou or the tundra. Human beings have rights; wildernesses do not. Laying pipelines along a frozen wasteland benefits man; keeping that wasteland ‘pristine’ does not. Today, particularly as the architects of our foreign policy worry about reductions in the output of Persian Gulf oil, there is one obvious way to ensure abundant, reliable sources of energy: free the American producers from the shackles of environmentalism.

© Ayn Rand® Institute. All rights reserved.

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Eric Daniels is a research assistant professor at the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina.

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