The potential flow rates of the conventional sources of hydrocarbons locked up in ANWR and the continental shelf cannot be known until they are produced. But we can make ballpark estimates.

All of these areas have been well explored, and we have an idea of what they might produce: a slight bump in the bell curve of U.S. oil production, like this:

Historical data (1860-2006, red symbols) and model predictions for US oil production rates in billion barrels per year. - Dashed line: Base case with 231 billion barrels ultimate cumulative US oil production. - Solid line: Production curve with 42 billion barrels of new oil resources (273 billion barrels of ultimate cumulative production). Source: Dr. Kyriacos Zygourakis, "On Quenching Our 'Big Thirst' for Oil"

That model is a best-case scenario of US oil production if all off-limits federal lands were opened to drilling.

There are limits on all of the remaining U.S. oil reserves, for numerous technical reasons that would be beyond the scope of this summary. To cite just one example, let’s look at the capacity of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).


There is only one pipeline that could transport oil from ANWR: the 800-mile Trans Alaskan Pipeline System (TAPS), which serves the Prudhoe Bay field. No other oil pipeline from Alaska’s north slope would ever be built, due to the cost and logistical issues. TAPS can transport a little over 2 mbpd, and currently carries about 650,000 barrels per day (last updated: June 2010). Therefore, if we brought ANWR online today, it could at maximum deliver about 1.35 mbpd. But in reality, it would take 8-10 years after approval to begin producing the first of that oil. Furthermore, preliminary estimates by the USGS indicated that ANWR would likely only produce around 750,000 barrels per day at peak.

In total, we believe that if all limits on domestic drilling were removed, it could only increase US oil production by a maximum of 2-3 mbpd in 10 years’ time. Against the background of oil depletion, which removes 3-4 mbpd from world supply every year, the additional oil from ANWR and all other undeveloped federal lands will be underwhelming. As for its effect on prices, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that drilling in ANWR would only reduce the price of gasoline by less than four pennies per gallon—20 years from now!

Deepwater drilling and the Gulf of Mexico

Drilling in deepwater, as we are doing in the Gulf of Mexico, is the only way the to find oil fields in the Lower 48 that can produce large flows (50,000 barrels per day or more) of oil. However, deepwater fields tend to “crash” at high rates, with production declining at 20% per year or more once they pass the peak.

A good example is BP’s Thunder Horse platform, one of the most advanced deepwater platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. The field was discovered in 1999 in Mississippi Canyon blocks 788 and 822, and partners BP and Exxon announced that the field had a billion barrels of reserves. The Thunder Horse platform was originally designed to produce 250,000 barrels per day, but never reached that level. Its production is already declining by as much as 25% per year, and now produces about 180,000 barrels per day. Ultimate production from the Thunder Horse complex is expected to fall significantly short of a billion barrels.

Our dependency on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has been brought into sharp relief by the BP oil spill. (See also: “The Oil Spill in Perspective” and “The Real Gulf Crisis“)

“Energy independence” is unachievable

Although every barrel we can produce domestically will be welcome and would slightly reduce our dependency on imports, the idea that we can somehow drill our way to independence from imported oil is misleading in the extreme. At the rate that the U.S. currently uses oil, the chance of producing all of our own needs domestically is zero. The only way we can truly become energy independent is by severely curtailing our oil demand, and switching loads over to renewables.

Indeed, we should recognize, as the Saudis have, that the oil that remains will only become more valuable as time goes on, and it makes sense to save some for future generations. Burning every last bit of it as quickly as we can makes no sense at all.