Keep it in the ground?

California oil production is half of what it was thirty years ago. In 1985 the Golden State produced about a million barrels of crude oil per day. In 2018 that number dropped below 500,000. California is the largest consumer of gasoline and jet fuel in the nation as well as the second-largest consumer of all petroleum products. The state ranks third in refining capacity and accounts for one-tenth of all crude oil refining in the country.

Domestic production is declining but the population continues to grow. In 1985 there were 27 million of us and now there are almost 40 million and we have about 15 million cars. That means we have to import more oil. In fact, about half of the oil refined in California comes from foreign sources. Here’s a chart:


Those are some charming places. Angola? Really? And do we have to get in bed with the Saudi Arabians? At least we are buying oil from Colombia instead of just cocaine. This chart does not include oil from Alaska, of course. Here’s another chart:


The Trans-Alaska Pipeline starting flowing in 1977, the year I graduated from high school. There is a large shipping and refining infrastructure in the Bay Area and Alaskan crude was a big part of that. Many of the refineries near where I grew up relied on regular deliveries via tanker from Alaska. We also get a lot of oil by rail, particularly from North Dakota, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

California sees itself as a leader in fighting climate change. We are a very green place, man. We lead the nation in solar energy, for example. That’s good. We need action on global carbon emissions. The problem is that we consume a lot of fossil fuels. Still. And we will continue to do that. Natural gas is an important fuel for home heating and cooking and gas turbines supply about one-third of our electricity. We use a lot of hydrocarbon products, just like all Americans and those of us lucky enough to live in wealthy, developed countries.

There’s a movement afoot that wants to keep fossil fuels “in the ground.” The assumption is that will lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions. In other words if you don’t drill for it then you can’t burn it, and if you can’t burn it you won’t pollute.

The problem is that crude oil resources are ubiquitous. They are located all over the world in all kinds of places like the North Sea, Nigeria, Malaysia, Canada, Guyana, Qatar, the Arctic, you name it. What happens is that if the supply is reduced or curtailed in one locale another will pick up the slack. Oil demand is robust because people need the stuff. If Californians don’t like oil exploration and development in their back yard that’s OK because they can buy it from somewhere else.

And as you can see that is exactly what is happening. We have a stable society in California. We have laws and a functioning legal system. We have a representative democracy. This means that citizens can actually impact policy decisions and can counter-balance, somewhat, the enormous political power of corporations. Much is made of the influence of the oil and gas industry on the Office of the Governor and the State Legislature. That may be so, but it is also clear that the “voice of the people” is having an impact. There’s substantial political momentum in the state for new restrictions on the fossil fuel folks, reducing or even eliminating new oil wells, pipelines, and other such infrastructure.

If we don’t dig it up, we won’t use it, right?

Wrong. We will just buy it from other places. You can see those other places—do you think they do as much as California does to regulate their oil industry? Do you think they do a better job with environmental laws, public health monitoring, and employee workplace protections? I don’t.

Californians have already indicated their hostility to one power source that could help us with our energy transition to cleaner fuels: nuclear. There aren’t going to be any new nuke plants in the state anytime soon, in fact, the whole country has mostly soured on atomic energy (with the exception of the US Navy, of course). We are blessed with a well-developed hydro-power network but that source can’t really grow. We are going “all-in” on solar and the mild, sunny climate helps with that, but that source can’t help the transportation and manufacturing sectors. Those need oil, and will continue to need oil.

So, we can drill our own or we can buy it from Mexico, Iraq, Ecuador and other places.

You decide.

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