Fact and fiction on oil in the Sixth

Story by Chris Graham

It sounds good when Bob Goodlatte puts the numbers in front of us. Virginia has 57 million barrels of recoverable oil and more than 300 billion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas on the waters off its outer continental shelf.

That’s a lot of dadgum oil and natural gas, right? Well …

The oil, not so much – the U.S. consumes about 20 million barrels of oil per day, so we’re talking about three days worth of oil there. Yeah. The natural-gas cache isn’t much more valuable. The U.S. blows through about 60 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day, meaning our store out there in the ocean keeps our country going about five days.

I’m not picking on the Republican congressman here, because Goodlatte’s opponent in the Sixth District congressional race, Democrat Sam Rasoul, deserves some of that kind of attention himself.

“Drilling has to be part of the solution. Drilling, first and foremost, though, in the lands that we’ve already granted leases on,” Rasoul told me last week, repeating a line that has been popularized by Democratic critics of the Republican drill, drill, drill mantra. “Most people don’t know that over 80 percent of the leases that we’ve granted to oil and natural-gas companies are sitting idle right now with no one exploring them or trying to find out their viability. So we need to make sure that we exercise those leases or pass them onto someone else. That really needs to come first and foremost,” Rasoul said.

Doing some quick research, I was able to come to the conclusion that the main line of thought in this argument is at least partly true, in that there are somewhere in the area of 65 to 70 million acres of lands under lease to oil companies that currently aren’t producing oil. I feel compelled to point out here that Democrats will tend to tell you that nothing is being done on those acres, that they are “sitting idle,” as Rasoul said above, while Republicans will say that they’re sitting idle because they have been determined to be of no value. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in the middle, with some of the lands having been determined to be either of little value for oil extraction or proving to be too much in the way of high costs to make that extraction worthwhile, and the rest in the process of being explored, and as I have come to understand things in this area, the process can take years from getting the lease in hand to getting the proper permits to pumping oil out of the ground.

Now back to Goodlatte, who told a Staunton GOP breakfast last week about the fabled oil-shale reserve in the Rocky Mountains that could have somewhere between 2 and 3 trillion barrels of oil. “Now, to give you an idea of how much oil that is, since the 1850s, when the first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania, until today, the entire world has used about 1 trillion barrels of oil. So there is more oil in the Rocky Mountains than there have been consumed by the entire world in the entire time that we have been extracting and consuming oil,” Goodlatte said. “So the reserves are here in this country. It costs more to extract it from oil shale, but when oil prices are above eighty to a hundred dollars a barrel, it is very economically feasible to do so.” The next words out of Goodlatte’s mouth were critical of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for blocking consideration of the Republican-sponsored America Energy Act, which makes it sound like all we’d have to do is have Congress approve this election-year legislation, and we get ourselves access to this great treasure trove of oil shale.

Not so fast. For one, the Bush administration has already opened up some of the shale lands to limited exploration, though the administration and Republican lawmakers are pressing for more to be opened up for further development. Which itself is interesting because, two, a Bush administration Interior official admitted to Congress recently that it could be 2015 or later before the technology needed to develop oil shale is in hand.

And three, it looks like the 2 to 3 trillion barrels estimate could be a bit off. The Interior Department is putting the figure at 800 billion barrels, still three times the proven reserves in Saudi Arabia, but not 2 or 3 trillion.

It’s an election year. I understand that. I also understand that we can’t expect politicians to be experts on every single issue that comes before them. I think we can expect them to have enough intellectual curiosity to ask questions about what they hear on Sean Hannity or get handed in a set of daily talking points.

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