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Monday, February 18 , 2019, 11:42 pm | Fair 49º


Local Experts Tout Alternative Energy as Price of Crude Oil Reaches Two-Year High

There's disagreement about the effect drilling would have on California’s dependency on oil imports

The price of crude oil has jumped to its highest level in more than two years, and experts say it’s not going down anytime soon as violence escalates around the Middle East.

“Our whole economy is built on cheap oil, and we need to start the transition to alternative energy sources in a serious way,” said Michael Chiacos, a transportation specialist with Community Environmental Council. “We are at the mercy of high oil prices, and every time they rise we can be thrown in a recession again. ... This summer we might see $5 gasoline (per gallon).”

Oil prices have soared to more than $100 a barrel as the unrest in Libya continues, but that may not be the worst of the world’s problems in terms of oil prices, said Tam Hunt, a renewable energy policy expert who formerly worked for the Community Environmental Council.

Santa Barbara’s average price of unleaded gas is $3.65 per gallon; it was $2.92 at this time last year, according to GasBuddy.com. The highest-priced pump is $3.84 at the Village Service Station, 1476 East Valley Road in Montecito, and the cheapest is $3.45 at Vons, 165 N. Fairview Ave. in Goleta.

“Right now, many are worried (revolution) might spread to Iran and Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, but the more important story is that the United States reached its peak oil production in 2006,” Hunt said.

According to the International Energy Association, the world is now on the backside of the oil supply curve, and 2006 may have been the all-time peak in oil production.

“After the global economy took a huge downturn and demand for oil dropped with prices, the question was, how long would it take for high levels of demand to return,” Hunt said. “We’ve returned to higher gas prices. No one foresaw the events in the Middle East and there being a risk premium on gas.”

Protests in Bahrain have sparked concern that violence will erupt in neighboring Saudi Arabia, which holds one-fifth of the world’s oil.

WikiLeaks revealed that Saudi Arabia’s crude oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 40 percent, meaning the world’s largest oil exporter may not have enough resources to prevent prices from rising.

“People need to realize prices will never go back down, and we need to prepare for an era of higher gas prices through alternative transportation,” Chiacos said.

Some alternative energy sources include electricity, wind, solar and biofuels. Chiacos said people need to use alternative forms of transportation such as electric or hybrid vehicles, carpooling and public transportation.

“We’ve seen some good things come out of the Obama administration in the higher gas mileage standards for new cars,” he said. “Santa Barbara is an early adopter market for hybrid vehicles; people can insulate themselves from high gas prices through electric cars.”

But both Chiacos and Hunt say onshore drilling on the California coast wouldn’t make a significant dent on the state’s dependency on oil imports.

“We’ll never being able to drill our way out of the problem,” Chiacos said.

Hunt said drilling wouldn’t have any impact locally because the oil would be exported to the highest bidder.

“There are a lot of promising solutions, but the unknown factor is how much you can substitute electric fields or biofuels with existing energy,” he said. “The pace is too slow, in my view. We need to ramp up the speed of changing over to nonfossil fuels.”

But Joe Sparano, executive adviser to the board chairman of the Western States Petroleum Association, said offshore drilling in federal waters off California would drastically decrease the state’s dependency on oil imports.

“There is enough oil to allow California to replace all the foreign crude oil we currently import — about 850,000 barrels a day — and keep replacing it every day for the next 30 years,” Sparano said.

Although extraction wouldn’t be a quick process, California could access 10 billion barrels off the coast if it decided to drill, he said. Since the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, more than 1 billion barrels have been produced and only 800 barrels have spilled, which Sparano said is a good safety record.

“It may not be the total answer, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be helpful,” said Lanny Ebenstein, former president of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. “We could probably get an additional 100,000 barrels a day from four onshore projects, which could bring $250 million to local government, provide high-paying jobs, help reduce American dependence on foreign oil and generate $750 million a year for the state.”

Ultimately, Chiacos said, Santa Barbara must wean itself off oil.

“In Santa Barbara, we have the solutions available,” he said, “but can we adopt them fast enough is the question.”

Noozhawk staff writer Alex Kacik can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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