Should We Even Bother With Offshore Oil? A Look at the Numbers

One doesn’t need to look very far to find someone pondering the future of offshore drilling.  The recent catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is a stark reminder of the high-risk, high-payoff game the future could be.  You know the risks…loss of fishing and tourism revenue, human life, human health, declining ecosystem function, diminishing biodiversity, and overall environmental degradation.  But what of the payoff?  How much offshore oil is out there and how long will it sustain us?

According to Annual Energy Outlook (Table 10 pg 57) produced by the Energy Information Association and the Department of Energy in 2007,  59.09 billion barrels was technically recoverable in the U.S. offshore oil holdings.  40.92 billion barrels are in the Gulf of Mexico alone.  According to a 2008 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the federal government estimates the total reserve for our nation’s outer continental shelf at around 85.9 billion barrels.

How long will that oil last us?  At 7.56 billion barrels of oil per year.  Between 7.9-11.3 years.  That’s it.  We have quite possibly ruined the entire Gulf of Mexico for 11.3 years of oil.

What is the global offshore reserves?  350 billion barrels.  The global annual consumption of oil…31.2 billion barrels. That is just 11.2 years worth of oil at our current consumption rate.

Of course all of these are estimates and there is likely variance in any one of them.  However, our oil consumption is not likely to magically decrease by half and fairy dust will not make our reserves double.  But even if they were, would 16-24 years make you feel any better than 8-12?  It doesn’t for me.

These simple calculations demonstrate that oil cannot be our future.  I am not willing to gamble our oceans on a temporary fix from offshore drilling.

Dr. M (1730 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, a National Science Foundation supported initiative. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (, a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web. His forthcoming book, Science of the South (, connects cultural icons of South such as pecan pie with the science behind them.

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