Should we be holding on to all that oil until we really need it?

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In a comment to my post on offshore drilling, odograph writes (and my Dad agrees):

If I could ask reporters to do one thing, it would be to always frame coastal reserves in terms of current consumption.

There is a strong (predictably irrational?) tendency to only mention the one-time gift this oil might give us in prices, and not where that will leave us, after.

There is a strong (predictably irrational?) tendency to assume that all those technologies we’ve been dreaming of for 30 years (hydrogen and electric cars?) will suddenly be there when this oil gives out.

There are environmental arguments, but the strongest ones I think are based on prudence and caution.
… as they sometimes say in energy circles “use their oil first.” We might need ours in the future WAY more than we do now.

Andrew Leonard sounded a similar note in his blog Wednesday:

[W]hat is the truly “conservative” position on offshore drilling, or energy policy in general? Recklessly exhausting all available resources now, and letting the future take care of itself — or conserving those resources, investing carefully for the future, and thinking about the long term? Where does prudence reside — in attempting to shave a few pennies off of gas prices now, or on planning on how to cope with high gas prices for the foreseeable future?

My first thought: Couldn’t you do both?

I really don’t know what the right answer is here. Opening the Outer Continental Shelf to drilling would, unless there are some huge reserves out there that the geologists have entirely missed, have only a modest impact on U.S. oil production and almost no impact on oil and gas prices (and this wouldn’t happen for decades). It would take some of the money now flowing from U.S. consumers to the Persian Gulf (and worse, Canada) and divert it to domestic oilworkers, domestic oil-company executives and shareholders, and state and federal government coffers. Those are the positives.

The environmental negatives are the risk of spills (which I would think is small but not vanishingly so), and the despoiling (for several decades; not forever) of the views of beachgoers and coastal property owners. Which I’m afraid I just can’t get all that excited about. Of all the environmental threats our nation faces, these are on the petty, NIMBYish side.

Then there’s the much more interesting argument that we should conserve these oil resources until we really need them. A complicating factor is that, even if the federal government starts okaying offshore leases willy nilly today, it will be more than 20 years before production from them really gets up to speed. So the question is, will we need the oil more 20 years from now than we will 40 or 50 years (or more) from now? I have this suspicion that we will–if we haven’t figured out a replacement for oil 40-50 years from now, we’re toast. Twenty years from now we might still be transitioning ourselves out of the oil era and a little extra production might help ease the switch. But that’s nothing but a guess.