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Originally published September 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 17, 2008 at 10:40 AM

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Bruce Ramsey

Drilling for oil buys time to develop the fuels of the future

I am trying to figure out the argument not to drill for oil. It is a puzzle. Our civilization is based on petroleum.

Seattle Times staff columnist

I am trying to figure out the argument not to drill for oil. It is a puzzle.

Our civilization is based on petroleum. We are running short of it, making a fundamental problem. And so, the argument goes, we shouldn't drill in any of the new places.

That makes no sense.

Most often I hear this in regard to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There, the argument is about the wildlife, as if having a few drilling rigs, dirt roads and pipelines on a vast expanse of tundra would kill the animals. But mostly the argument is not about this. That is the fascinating thing. The main argument seems to be that finding oil will not do any good.

It is said, for example, that drilling won't produce enough oil to give Americans energy independence, or to arrest the decline in U.S. production, or to produce any new oil for several years.

All of which are probably true. But is any of them a sufficient reason not to drill? Take the delay, often stated as seven years. Surely it's better to have a tank of gas seven years from now than not to have it.

What other fuels will be ready and plentiful seven years from now? Two years ago it was going to be biodiesel. Promoters said biodiesel might supply 10 percent of the state's needs if we devoted fallow land to it. They convinced the Legislature to set an initial target (not a mandate) that 2 percent of the diesel sold in Washington be biodiesel as of Nov. 30, 2008. The deadline approaches, and as of July we were at 0.6 percent — less than one-third of the way there.

Biodiesel is having problems: Because of the run-up in the prices of its feedstocks, canola and soy, biodiesel costs more than petroleum diesel. The U.S. government subsidizes biodiesel production and the Europeans subsidize consumption, so most of the biodiesel produced in the United States is shipped to Europe. U.S. taxpayers, thus, pay some of the Europeans' fuel bills.

The other biofuel, ethanol, is cheaper than gasoline, and its share in gasoline sold in Washington is 6.5 percent. But most ethanol is from yellow corn, which is not an energy-efficient source and requires a subsidy. There is a new thought that it is not so smart to grow a fuel crop on land for growing food, and that ethanol used here should be made from wood chips. It may be a good idea.

I'm for working on alternative fuels. We will need them. We will have to make gasoline from tar sands or coal, or ethanol from switch grass, algae or wood chips, or develop plug-in hybrids powered by wind, hydro or nuclear — or something. But what?

We don't know yet.

That a technology works does not mean that it is the answer. My son's high-school biology teacher had the class make biodiesel from old french-fry oil. It was a fine science lesson. There is, in fact, a small industry of making biodiesel from waste grease. But it is a small solution.

The big one isn't clear.

The don't-drill-now folks tend to think it's all a matter of political will — that Americans are "addicted" to petroleum because we have let the oil companies befuddle us, and that a "sustainable" and "energy independent" economy is ours if we insist on it.

The Earth is not so easy. It offers a puzzle of geology and physics and rates of return. Americans live on petroleum — the human race lives on it — because of how good it is: how many BTUs per pound it contains and how easy it has been to get it. Some alternatives now offer themselves, but there are trade-offs of cost, value, side effects and risk.

The more we work on it, the better our choices will be.

Ultimately, we will have to get ourselves addicted to something other than petroleum. By saying, "Don't drill now" — in Alaska or elsewhere — we shorten the time we have to get ready.

And we are not ready.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to www.seattletimes.com/edcetera

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle native. He was a business reporter and columnist for many years before becoming an editorial columnist, a job, he says, in which he is paid to be opinionated. He says his editorial lodestones are,"liberty, and what works." He is married to an immigrant from Hong Kong, where they once lived, and they have one son.
bramsey@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2057

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