We should do it for the money.
There’s a lot of oil in a very small part of a very big wilderness that 99.9% of Americans will never visit. There are, however, some reasons why making the decision to go get it is not likely to reduce prices people pay at the pump this summer. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), it would take about 10 years to get much oil flowing. It’s also not likely to be enough oil to dramatically change supply / demand (it would represent something like 0.5 – 1% of total global production for several years). Though it should be noted that at the time of peak ANWR production, around 2027, this would be equal to something like 10% of U.S. crude production, which is nothing to sneeze at, and comparable to various realistic cases for predicted energy production in this time period from some much-hyped alternative energy sources.
There’s an argument that just by signaling that we’re going to drill, we’d drive the oil market lower. There’s might be something to that, but such a prediction is highly speculative, both because the traders that set oil prices are aware of the size of U.S. conventional reserves, and because the market psychology arguments cut both ways – e.g., “Look, the U.S is committing to long-term dependence, and therefore demand will stay high”.
On the other hand, a very safe prediction is that it will be worth a lot of money to dig that oil up and burn it. The EIA estimates that there are about 2.6 billion barrels of oil in ANWR that could be expected to be extracted between 2018 and 2030. Even using the EIA’s long-term forecast for oil price – which is much lower than today’s price per barrel – that much oil would be worth about $200 billion. As an added bonus, that is almost a dollar-for-dollar reduction of the U.S. trade deficit. In the end, this is the rational argument to drill. America is a very wealthy country, but not so wealthy that we can afford to give up $200 billion as a potlatch.
Once again, as with cap-and-trade, McCain has thrown away a key part of the energy issue, which should be one of his strongest issues in this campaign. Public opinion is moving very rapidly in favor of drilling in ANWR, as you would expect given what’s happened to the price of gas over the past couple of years. According to Pew Research polling, just in the last 6 months there has been a 15-point swing in support. It is now a majority position. Imagine what could happen if a presidential candidate were actually arguing for it.