California Can Either Make Use of Its Sea of Oil, Or Drown In It

Earlier this month, The New York Times gave space to a climate activist who argued that policymakers must “Free California of Fossil Fuels.” Six days later, the Times’ California Today feature covered the state’s “Move to Mandate 100% Carbon-Free Electricity” through Senate Bill 100.

A significant portion of Californians would agree with the articles. After all, being “green” can increase one’s status in this state.

But letting those resources idle in the ground for “green” reasons is self-defeating. California sits on a vast ocean of the cheapest, most efficient energy source on the planet.

California has in recent history produced more crude oil than all but two states, Texas and North Dakota. But it has now plummeted to sixth in the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s most recent rankings, not far ahead of seventh-place Colorado, which has only about two-thirds of the proved reserves of crude that California has, according to EIA data.

California, which has more than 1.9 billion barrels in proved reserves, has also fallen behind in production to New Mexico and Oklahoma, both holding fewer reserves. Lawmakers have made conscious policy decisions to curb oil production in this state. It has slumped from nearly 400 million barrels in 1983 to just 173 million last year.

Natural gas production, which generates 60 percent of the state’s electricity, is also in decline. Though California is not as rich in natural gas as it is in crude, there is still more here than in the surrounding states.

On the same day the Times op-ed was published, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced that it is considering ending a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing and opening 1.6 million acres of federal lands in California to fossil fuel development. Naturally this stirred up the green activists. The Center for Biological Diversity called it “a coordinated attack on California by the Trump administration,” while ForestWatch Executive Director Jeff Kuyper insisted that the proper response is “to tell the Trump Administration loud and clear that we’re not willing to pollute and industrialize these iconic landscapes.”

The protests leave out some important facts. Last year, for instance, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued a report on pollution near oil and gas operations after evaluating more than 10,000 air samples from active sites. Researchers concluded that “air concentrations were below short- and long-term ‘safe” levels.” Also overlooked is the fact that fracking fluid is 99 percent water. Much of the rest is made up of surfactants which are “no more toxic than substances commonly found in homes,” says the University of Colorado-Boulder.

Another oft-repeated charge is that fracking contaminates nearby water tables. But that isn’t quite right. The U.S. Geological Survey has determined that when “conducted properly, hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’) has little possibility of contaminating water supplies.” At least 15 peer-reviewed studies since 2010 have reached the same conclusion, says the Heartland Institute’s Timothy Benson.

In contrast with its reputation as a destructive force, oil has improved our lives. It provides “cheap, plentiful, reliable energy for billions of people,” explains Alex Epstein, author of the New York Times best-selling book “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” and president and founder of the San Diego-based Center for Industrial Progress.

“Despite more than three decades of catastrophic predictions about our addiction to fossil fuels, the use of fossil fuel energy has helped us use machines to improve every metric of human well-being, from life expectancy to nourishment to climate-related deaths.”

Because this is the Golden State, it’s generally thought that California owes its fortunes to gold. But that overlooks the vital role crude has played. Oil has been a “significant part of the state’s aspirations to greatness,” Epstein told PRI, and a “driving force” of economic productivity. It’s provided Californians with “an amazing lifestyle” in which “we can do anything we imagine.” When the state’s oil production was at its height in the 1960s, Epstein wrote in Forbes in 2013, “the California economy was the envy of the nation.”

California needs to decide if it’s going to act as if it’s part of the developed world and make use of its bountiful inventory of fossil fuel, or if will remain irrationally committed to energy policies, such as SB 100, and eradicating gasoline- and diesel-burning vehicles, that require drawing on unreliable, and expensive sources. Moving backward should not be an option, but it’s the one policymakers are increasingly choosing.

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Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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