BP and the Two Percent Solution

The BP Gulf of Mexico disaster will be a transformative moment — just as the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill was.  What we don’t know is the direction that transformation will take.

For a century, Americans have learned to identify petroleum consumption with prosperity and power.  That mythology was semi-sensible only so long as we were the dominant oil producer in the world.  We lost that status long ago.

How much oil remains?  According to BP’s recently released Statistical Review of World Energy 2010, the United States has 28.4 billion barrels of oil reserves remaining, or 2.1 percent of the world total (see page six).  Meanwhile, our share of world consumption is a whopping 22 percent.

Here’s the challenge: The only way to reduce our dependence on imported oil is by reducing our dependence on oil. Imported oil drives the U.S. trade imbalance and totaled $253 billion in 2009 — equal to half of the trade deficit.

U.S. domestic oil production will not increase because:

(1) We have only two percent of the world’s oil reserves and have used up our easy-to-produce oil fields.

(2) We are on a downward trend: U.S. domestic production peaked in 1972 at 11.2 million barrels per day and last year we produced only 7.2 million (see BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2010).

(3) Much of our remaining reserves can be produced only at great risk to the environment, in deepwater or the Arctic (see BP’s Gulf oil spill) and they aren’t enough to reverse the declining output from our depleted oil fields.

The only way to cut our oil imports is to cut our overall oil usage.

“Drill, baby drill” is quite simply divorced from reality.  Unfortunately, it is difficult for Americans to understand this simple truth because, while they accurately understand our import dependence, they are woefully misinformed about U.S. oil reserves. As shown in the accompanying chart, Americans believe we have about half of the world’s oil reserves — and that illusion has been rising!

To begin with, our leaders need to educate the American people about the petroleum reserves situation.  In any speech on oil and energy, every sincere national leader — starting with President Obama — should emphasize the “two percent” challenge.  We cannot expect our country to arrive at a sensible energy policy if most people have a fundamentally mistaken belief about how much oil the United States has left in the ground.

Once the average person understands that we have only two percent of the world’s oil reserves, then he or she will be very open to new ways of thinking about the problem.

How can we possibly end our addiction to oil?  Most petroleum is used for transportation so we have to look there.  Making all vehicles more fuel efficient much more rapidly is a good place to start.  Switching away from petroleum where possible is also helpful.  (Montgomery County, Maryland, is switching its garbage fleet over to compressed natural gas which will clean the air and save money.)  Research on substitutes for petroleum fuels should also continue.  Here’s a roundup of recent ideas.

However, we need to do more than just tinker with fuels and vehicles.  We must alter our low-population-density pattern of development that forces people to get in their cars simply to get to work or even just to buy milk.  It is this entrenched pattern, reinforced by decades of planning decisions, cultural attitudes and corporate promotion that needs to be changed.  The goal should be population densities high enough that public transit can sustain itself and people aren’t forced to own cars.  This won’t work everywhere for everybody but it can work for many of us.

Our energy-intensive lifestyle wasn’t chosen by individuals or decreed by Manifest Destiny.  It resulted from deliberate government decisions about zoning and road building.  We must begin to reverse those decisions now.

The good news is that the market is already trending toward higher density and more mixed use.  Governments at all levels must accelerate this trend while avoiding misguided decisions that promote energy-intensive, low-density living.  Such foolishness can be seen even in “environment friendly” Montgomery County, Maryland, where leaders pushed for years to build the Inter-County Connector and continue to encourage other projects that foster low-density, energy-intensive sprawl.

We need to make our urban spaces vibrant and desirable places to live and work.  States and localities can lead the way.  Make Baltimore a Green Metropolis.  Philadelphia already has an Office of Sustainability.  Cities across the country are expanding bike-sharing programs.  See the Smart Growth America website for more information.

Politics and culture change slowly but sometimes they change quickly, especially in the wake of national traumas like the BP Gulf oil spill.  Giving people accurate information is a good place to start.

And thanks, BP, for sharing this data with us!

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2 responses to “BP and the Two Percent Solution

  1. Pingback: Tell Americans the Truth About Oil, President Obama « Maryland Energy Report

  2. Pingback: Is Petroleum A Barrier to U.S. Economic Growth? « Maryland Energy Report

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