Big Gulf Oil Strike Could Save 100 Million Acres of U.S. Forests
Chevron’s big new Gulf of Mexico oil strike could save 100 million acres of U.S. forests from being plowed down to grow inefficient biofuels. Does that spark your eco-interest in off-shore oil drilling?
Right now, those are our choices for increased energy independence.
Chevron and its partners gambled $100 million on a pioneering well into an older strata of rock than we’ve ever drilled before. New seismic technology helped the oil companies find the oil deposit far beneath a massive salt dome. The gamble, that the well would flow strongly enough to be economically viable, was a big winner.
The betting right now seems to be that Chevron’s new Jack field will produce a total of 10–15 billion barrels of oil. By itself, that could increase U.S. proven oil reserves by 50 percent! Other oil companies aren’t saying how much oil they might have in the region’s still untapped fields, but oil analyst Wood McKenzie says the older rock strata potentially represent a “world-class success story.” And, America has not only the Gulf of Mexico but also massive un-drilled oil-bearing formations off both our Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and gas-bearing formations under federal lands.
Contrast the Jack field success with the sad tale of corn ethanol. U.S. gasoline consumption was 134 billion gallons in 2003. America’s cornfields produce only 244 gallons worth of gasoline per acre per year. Each bushel of corn is worth 2.7 gallons of ethanol, and U. S. corn crops have lately averaged 138 bushels per acre. That’s an average per-acre yield of about 375 gallons of ethanol—which we must then discount for ethanol’s 35 percent lower energy content.
It would thus take more than 546 million acres of U.S. cropland to replace our current gasoline use with corn ethanol. Total U.S. crop plantings have recently been about 440 million acres—and that land has produced all our food and fiber, plus billions of dollars in farm exports that also help feed the world. Soybeans represent an even worse return, as acre of U.S. soybeans is worth only 52 gallons of biodiesel per year.
Neither biofuel is profitable without huge government subsidies.
Most importantly, America just doesn’t have enough farming acres to produce both food and biofuels. The Conservation Reserve land is too dry. We’d have to denude huge tracts of forestland somewhere in the country—steep, wet or rough land that might yield only half as much corn per acre as current corn acres. That’s why it might take more than 100 million acres of forest to match the Jack’s oilfield’s energy production over the next 20 years.
Complicating things further, corn needs lots of energy-intensive nitrogen fertilizer, lots of fossil-derived pesticide protection, and fuel for the fermentation. Corn ethanol delivers only 25 percent more energy than it takes to make it. With ethanol’s energy discount, we’d have to produce six gallons of ethanol for each gallon of imported gasoline we displace.
If we are sacrificing our forests to avoid more CO2 out of fear of global warming, understand that the Modern Warming looks like another of the moderate, erratic, natural 1500-year climate cycles. The ice cores and seabed sediments tell us those have been going on for the last one million years.
Should we chainsaw 100 million acres of forest for corn ethanol before we have proof that the Modern Warming is caused by human-emitted CO2 and not by Mother Nature? Or should we lease more offshore drilling?
Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, DC and the Director for Global Food Issues. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. Readers may write him at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.