Guest Editorial: A Sub-Prime Energy Future?

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.