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October 01, 2008

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Guest Editorial: A Sub-Prime Energy Future?

An opinion on oil shale by Larry Schweiger, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation

Schweiger2At the very time that Wall Street financiers are staggering around dazed and confused in the rubble of a smoke-and-mirrors game gone terribly awry, the oil industry and its political allies are selling Americans another sub-prime investment.

In our view, the drive to gut coastal protection isn’t the worst of Big Oil’s agenda for this Congress. By doing Big Oil’s bidding and allowing the offshore drilling and commercial oil shale moratoriums to expire, Congress has failed to protect the interests of Americans in general, and hunters and anglers in particular. Though largely overshadowed in the national discussion, commercial oil shale drilling in the West is a sub-prime investment that America cannot afford, because it endangers scarce water resources, wildlife and recreation habitat and is a step backward for the climate.

Meanwhile, we are shutting the door on millions of Americans who are waiting for the good paying jobs that Made-in-America clean energy technologies could produce. But these investments, which would recharge America’s economy, are losing ground to Big Oil’s multi-million dollar campaign to “drill, baby, drill.”

America’s sportsmen understand the balance we need between responsible energy development and protection of valuable landscapes. In a recent nationwide survey of sportsmen by National Wildlife Federation, more than 80 percent said they believe America should get 100 percent of our electric power from clean, renewable energy sources within 10 years. Support extended across party lines and ideology for this huge and influential cross-section of the American public. One in five voters hunts or fishes. And yet no politicians are talking about setting goals for alternative energy that are nearly this ambitious.

The current energy debate isn’t about relieving gas prices at the pump. It’s not even about access to more crude. The drilling debate is a distraction meant to divert attention away from broad public support for a dramatic transformation toward clean energy.

When consumer backlash over high gas prices threatened to turn into overwhelming public support for clean energy alternatives, Big Oil went into action plowing hundreds of millions of dollars into a public relations campaign to convince the American public that drilling is the way to energy salvation. The scheme seems to be working. Nearly overnight, Congress has stopped questioning whether to drill and, instead, is debating how far to go.

We turned Wall Street over to the so-called financial “experts” running the place, then took away the regulations and oversight to let them do what they do, unfettered. What we got looks to be the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression. Now we’re about to do the same thing with the oil and gas industry. Congress is opening up our coasts to drilling, our western lands to oil shale development, and is still after the Artic National Wildlife Refuge. Again, we’re turning over our treasure to the so-called “experts” in the energy industry, taking away regulations and restrictions, and hoping that this time it’ll turn out differently.

A coalition of 20 leading sportsmen groups from the Western states that would be most affected have asked Congress to reinstate the moratorium on oil shale development. In the absence of answers about how oil shale can be produced without unacceptable costs to Western land, water, and wildlife, hunters and anglers are fighting to keep commercial development from being authorized on our public lands.

Oil shale is the poster child for a sub-prime investment in our energy future. It’s like a no-doc loan that fails to conduct due diligence. Oil shale development is an expensive and risky scheme that will require huge federal tax breaks to oil companies to be viable. Taxpayers already are paying millions of dollars to clean up the mess left by prior failed attempts to turn rock into oil. If we buy into Big Oil’s ploy that digging deeper is the way to get out of the hole, oil shale will drain our Western rivers, accelerate global warming, and decimate large swaths of land in the heart of America’s West.

According to government analysis, it takes about five gallons of water to produce one gallon of oil from oil shale, and a viable oil shale industry would consume upwards of 200 million gallons of water a day. This scarce water must come from the parched West where water demand for drinking, agriculture, livestock and wildlife is already in short supply, and will be made worse as Western climate warms.

As a high-carbon fuel, oil shale causes at least 20-45 percent more global warming pollution than conventional gasoline production. Some of the world’s top climate scientists recently have issued warnings that we are on the verge of unstoppable global warming due to the excessive carbon pollution entering the atmosphere. And unlike the banking and insurance industries, there is no bailout package waiting in the wings if we fail to take responsible action on the climate crisis now.

Also at stake are two million acres of essential wildlife habitat that support economies throughout Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. This area is home to an impressive array of wildlife including the largest mule deer herd in the country, mountain lions, black bears, bald eagles, and elk. For promises of oil shale, Americans will be left with an impoverished landscape that may be impossible to restore—devoid of fish, wildlife, and historical and cultural icons in the very heart of what defines America’s West.

Congress should come back next year with a bold plan to cap global warming pollution and invest in wind, solar, hyper-efficient cars, and other clean energy alternatives that will create jobs and recharge America’s economy. The new Congress also should reinstate the oil shale drilling moratorium. Americans deserve better and safer energy choices, not another bad investment.

It’s too late to do it differently with Wall Street, but it’s not too late to say “no” to Big Oil. Pursuing a clean energy future now may keep us from a future energy crash that makes Wall Street’s look like a bump in the road.

Larry Schweiger is President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, based in Reston, Va.


Mike Diehl

I agree with every word. In these dark times, in my view, a bold new enterprise in clean energy and reinvestment in science rather than the same old baloney is needed.

I've given up on the GOP. What a bunch of stupid 1 trick ponies. A fraking asteroid could be steering straight for the Earth and some GOP Cato-Enterprise Institute Idiot would insist that the best solution is a reduction in the Capital Gains Tax Rate.


Vox clamantis in deserto

Nice to read a voice of reason, but can that reason reach the American public? I guess we're about to find out... but I'm not looking forward to the answer.

I'm in school right now

This guy knows what he's talking about. One thing though, the stocks may have been dropping dramatically, but percentage wise it still isn't near the Great Depression or Black Monday but don't get me wrong i agree that stuff needs to be done and this guy has got it all figured out.



How about more conservation?

Maybe if the speed limit was dropped to 55 and people quit driving everywhere they went (try walking sometimes) and used public transportation more and quit driving vehicles for personal use that get lousy gas mileage, perhaps, just perhaps our need to drill for more oil (just for the oil companies to sell to the highest bidder) wouldn't seem like such a good idea.

Bottom line, the days of cheap gas are OVER and it's time to really look for alternatives for the 21st century.


Oilfield Engineer

I agree with Mr.Schweiger on the oil shale; strip mining this resource would be a disaster. If a way can be found to extract a fraction of the oil (kerogen) from the shale w/o mining, it would be a plus for the country. With regard to ANWR, the operators producing oil and gas from the North Slope (east of ANWR) have an excellent envoirnmental record; 2000 ac. of ANWR should be used to produce the resource there. With regard to the offshore oil, hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike toppled a number of production platforms but no oil spills occurred. It is the tankers, mostly transporting oil from other countries, that have been responsible for oil spills.

To say that Mr. Schweiger 'has it all figured out' is agreeing with a envoirnmental 1 trick pony. He has no idea what will work, he just knows what sells to his members. Increased oil prices will drive the market to innovation and alternative energy sources. But, until those discoveries and inventions become commercial and reduce our dependence on foriegn oil, we cannot allow that dependence to increase as our existing oilfields decline. You hear 'We only have 3% of the worlds oil, but we consume 25%'. The 3% is proved reserves already found by drilling. The 3% will increase if we can drill in new areas.


So tell me this - does anyone own a truck or SUV (or car maybe) with which you use to access your favorite hunting or fishing spot that runs on anything but fossil fuel? Face it we're going to need gas for a long time, and therefore it might as well be as cheap as possible so we can still enjoy doing the things we love that require a vehicle to get us there. And I'm curious to see if the local economies of CO, WY, and UT were given a choice between a booming energy economy and a recreation-based economy on pristine high-plains desert which they would choose...


Why do the environmental groups always make it an either - or issue?

I don't think his opinion is focused on hunting and fishing interests.

High gas prices have cut into hunting and fishing travel and trips. High oil prices raise the cost of all the things we buy to hunt and fish. Higher prices will reduce them further. License sales will cntinue to drop.

Proponents of alternative sources are acared that if oil prices drop, there will be less incentive to develop new energy sources, because new sources need high oil prices to be competitive.

But we can't ignore our own resource if it's there. Get it out, and add it to the world's supply to keep the money we send overseas to Chavez, Ameddinnerjacket, and the rest to a minimum.

Having more US oil is no reason not to continue to develop alternative energy.

Mike Diehl

"I don't think his opinion is focused on hunting and fishing interests."

People can adjust to energy shock through alternative sources, greater fuel-efficiency, and better management of time and budgets. Ultimately, wages and conservation WILL mitigate energy price inflation.

Strip mining is permanent and catastrophic. Every time a strip mine is stopped dead in its tracks, outdoorsmen, especially us hunters and fishers, are the better for it.

Charlie Peters

Ten years ago oil price was $10

I'm confused, how does more oil increase Big oil profit?

Does corn fuel ethanol policy increase oil use and Big oil profit?

Some folks think so

Clean Air Performance Professionals

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