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Throughout the years, in one energy debate after another, lawmakers and Presidents insisted that if they handed out enough incentives, U.S. oil production would rise, and there would be less need for imports. In each instance, legislation was accompanied by extravagant forecasts not only by lawmakers but by energy-company officials as well. In 1974 policymakers predicted that U.S. oil production "could increase to more than 17 million bbl. a day, which is more than sufficient to be at zero imports by 1985." The Reagan White House shared the optimism. A spokesman said that "the ranges that any reasonable person is considering include zero [imports] by 2000." By that year, however, imports were at their highest level ever, and domestic production had declined to levels not seen since 1950. Now President Bush has his own plan to jump-start oil production. He wants to begin drilling in a portion of the 1.5 million-acre arctic coastal-plain area of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), which covers a total of 19 million acres. According to the White House, the President "believes that opening this small area to environmentally responsible exploration would provide the resources necessary to reduce our dependence on foreign sources of oil and provide for greater energy security."
The reduction would be modest. Even if the ANWR would yield 1 million bbl. daily of crude oil, as suggested by the President, by the time pipelines are built and production gets under way, the oil would displace less than 10% of U.S. imports. And there are no guarantees for the 1 million bbl. In the early days of the North Slope project, politicians predicted that consumers would get 3.8 million bbl. of crude oil daily out of Alaska "by the end of the century." Instead production hit a high of 2 million bbl. in 1988--the only year at that level--and then began to trail off, dropping to 984,000 bbl. last year.
To make matters worse, the U.S. is confronted with a refinery gap--just as it was in the 1973-74 oil crisis. The U.S. consumed 19.8 million bbl. a day of petroleum products last year, but its refineries could process only 16.6 million bbl. of crude oil. The 3.2 million barrel difference was made up through imports of finished products like gasoline and jet fuel, which are even more susceptible to supply disruptions than crude oil. Following the energy debacles of the 1970s, the industry began adding refinery capacity. By 1980, it could process all the crude oil required to meet demand, but that lasted only until 1985. The gap has been widening ever since.
--CONSERVATION--BUT NOT FOR REAL MEN. After the 1973-74 energy crisis, when gas stations closed on Sundays and motorists waited in lines for hours to fill up, Congress enacted a series of tough conservation measures. The Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 imposed stringent mileage requirements on automakers--an average of 27.5 m.p.g. on passenger cars by model year 1985--to curb gasoline consumption. It worked.
In the decade before the act's passage, gasoline consumption had risen 48%, to 6.5 million bbl. a day in 1974. In years to follow, even with millions more cars on the highways, consumption remained largely unchanged. Beginning at 7 million bbl. a day in 1976, demand went up and down in a narrow range and by 1991 was at just 7.2 million.