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To Drill or Not to Drill: Modeling Oil Production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge


Click to enlarge mapThe Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a flash pointfor environmental and energy issues, combined in a volatile atmosphere of anti-terrorism. If only the U.S. could start drilling for oil there, the up to 8 billion estimated recoverable barrels of oil would surely lower our dependance on foreign oil, especially from the Middle East.

Or so proclaim those in favor of opening the refuge for drilling. (See - with a tag line of "Jobs and Energy For America" - for a collection of pro-drilling arguments.)

Currently, ANWR drilling is not permitted by federal statute. Over the past few years there have been several attempts in Congress to allow drilling - on some occasions from the House, only to be turned down by the Senate, and then from the Senate, shot down by the house. (Click here for more details.)

Even though it appears as if those against drilling are currently holding their own, the no-end-in-sight Iraqi situation combined with the explosion of jihadist sentiment and activity could tip things enough so that both the Senate and House finally agree to open up the slopes for drilling. (Which is just one of the reasons that the upcoming mid-term elections, and possilbe change in majority party in both the Senate and the House, are extremely significant for the ANWR.)

The Sierra Club is one of the more public groups leading the charge against ANWR drilling. In addition to the obvious environmental arguments against drilling, Sierra also claims that, even with massive driliing, the price at the pump will only drop approximately a penny a gallon, i.e. the amount available is so small, and the cost of extracting and refining the oil so large that very little will happen to the retail cost.

I had not seen anyanalyis that could shed light on just how ANWR production would affect U.S. oil supplies untilI read a recent article by Richard Wiener in the July 2006 edition of Physics and Society (vol. 35, no. 3). Wiener describes the use of Hubbert modeling for prediction of oil production. Hubbert models oil production logistically, and Wiener extends this by using multiple logistic curves. With very plausible values for the parameters in his logistic model, Wiener predicts that large-scale drilling at ANWR will not help lower the U.S. reliance on foreign oil. Instead, it will only slow down the rate of our dependance on foreign oil! This result sound very much like the typical election-year bantering about reducing the deficit: most of the time, what is being talked about is reducing the rate of deficit growth.

It is often the case that modeling predictions are picked apart by those on the opposite side of the ideological aisle, but in Wiener’s case, his conclusion is too obiously true to really be refuted: dependance will only go down with significant drop in demand on the part of the U.S.

And no modeler out there is ever going to predict that.