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ANWR drilling will benefit someone - let's see, who could that be?

July 06, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

When I was a teenager, my dad would rail at length about how a ton of alternative-fuel technology had been invented, but every time a new development came along, Big Oil would buy the patent and "put it on the shelf."

That was 30 years ago. A patent expires after 20 years. So if anyone would just think to go back and look up all these old patents that the oil companies put on the shelf, we'd all be saved.

I'm surprised nobody else has thought of this.

When there are surges in the price of a nation's most important commodity, financially disastrous wars with bad results and poor harvests that spark economic strife, things are bound to get emotional.

That was the situation in France in - the date may ring a bell - 1789. The Seven Years War with Britain and Prussia cleaned out the treasury (and cost France, India and Canada), a poor harvest in 1788 cleaned out the granaries and the rising cost of the chief commodity, bread, cleaned out the people's wallets.

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Feeling the need to do something, the people stormed the Bastille, expecting to free legions of political prisoners. Finding none, they made do with slaughtering the Bastille's superintendent, which made everyone feel pretty good for a while, but failed put food on any tables.

Today the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is our Bastille. Drill for oil there and all our problems will be solved. It's a simple, easy, feel-good answer. And, as is the case with most all simple, easy, feel-good answers, it is bound to disappoint.

I don't know that drilling there would really hurt anything, except for those who believe there ought to be one little corner of the globe free from human intrusion. But to believe that it would solve anything is to disassociate oneself from reason.

The Exxon-Mobiles of the world must be chuckling at the paradox. Because it is the gas-buying masses - the self-proclaimed sworn enemy of Big Oil - who are suddenly agitating for a policy that would most benefit, well, Big Oil.

Whose word are we taking that ANWR drilling is a panacea? Big Oil's (along with the politicians they've bought and paid for). Since when do we trust their word? None of us believe a thing that they say.

Yet here we are, carrying Big Oil's banner into battle. Oil companies have given us the talking points, and we're helping them right along.

Think. In our calmer moments, who do we really believe will see more financial gain from ANWR, us or them?

No matter, it will be a decade by the time any ANWR petroleum reaches our tanks. By then we will have forgotten their promises. The inconvenient fact that ANWR relief would not be seen until 2018 is explained away by the argument that legalization of wildlife-refuge drilling would be a shot across the bow of the oil speculators, who will stop bidding up the price.

If anyone can predict what speculators will do, I want to send him to Maine and let him predict the weather. Because both of these are acts that, to date, have never been done with anything resembling accuracy. And speculators live and die by the day and by the hour. Ten years from now? They are as likely to be worried about what will happen when our sun burns out.

We are also assuming that, if we increase our own production, it will add to world supply and the price will come down.

I hope someone has run this theory past OPEC and that they are on board with it. You would hate to think that, after all this fuss, we would start pumping a million barrels a day more - and OPEC would simply respond by pumping a billion barrels a day less. In a May, 2008 report, the Department of Energy acknowledges that OPEC "could neutralize any potential price impact of ANWR oil production by reducing its oil exports by an equal amount."

But if that didn't happen, if OPEC maintained its production, what would our savings at the pump be? According to the DOE report (written when oil was at $66 a barrel) the savings would be somewhere between 41 cents and $1.44 a barrel. In terms of gasoline, we're talking about a few pennies. In today's terms, ANWR doesn't get the price of gas down to $2. It doesn't even get it down to $3.75.

In the movie "Patton," the great general arrives at a disheveled African base and scares one sleeping soldier to his feet. Pressed, the soldier tells Patton he was taking a nap. Patton tells him to carry on because he's "the only SOB around here who knows what he's trying to do."

I feel that way about Exxon, one of a declining number of American companies that still knows how to make a profit. Windfall taxes - or any other mechanism that punishes the oil companies for being successful - are as short-sighted as drilling in ANWR.

But Big Oil needs to be careful. The graveyards of corporate America are littered with companies that got too greedy and grabbed for too much cash. One of the beauties of capitalism is that there is always an upstart innovator waiting in the wings for a time when his product or service can become economically viable.

I have a hunch that these innovations will begin trickling in long before the first drop of ANWR oil could trickle into our tanks. That's what happens when the price of energy dictates that an inventor can make more money by selling his product than allowing an oil company to buy the patent and put it on a shelf.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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