June 19, 2008
It was almost inevitable that a combination of $4-a-gallon gas, public anxiety and politicians eager to win votes or repair legacies would produce political pandering on an epic scale. So it has, the latest instance being President Bush's decision to ask Congress to end the federal ban on offshore oil and gas drilling along much of America's continental shelf.
This is worse than a dumb idea. It is cruelly misleading. It will make only a modest difference, at best, to prices at the pump, and even then the benefits will be years away. It greatly exaggerates America's leverage over world oil prices. It is based on dubious statistics. It diverts the public from the tough decisions that need to be made about conservation.
There is no doubt that a lot of people have been discomfited and genuinely hurt by $4-a-gallon gas. But their suffering will not be relieved by drilling in restricted areas off the coasts of New Jersey or Virginia or California. The Energy Information Administration says that even if both coasts were opened, prices would not begin to drop until 2030. The only real beneficiaries will be the oil companies that are trying to lock up every last acre of public land before their friends in power -- Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney -- exit the political stage.
The whole scheme is based on a series of fictions that range from the egregious to the merely annoying. Democratic majority leader, Senator Harry Reid, noted the worst of these on Wednesday: That a country that consumes one-quarter of the world's oil supply but owns only 3 percent of its reserves can drill its way out of any problem -- whether it be high prices at the pump or dependence on oil exported by unstable countries in Persian Gulf. This fiction has been resisted by Barack Obama but foolishly embraced by John McCain, who seemed to be making some sense on energy questions until he jumped aboard the lift-the-ban bandwagon on Tuesday.
A lesser fiction, perpetrated by the oil companies and, to some extent, by misleading government figures, is that huge deposits of oil and gas on federal land have been closed off and industry has had one hand tied behind its back by environmentalists, Democrats and the offshore protections in place for 25 years.
The numbers suggest otherwise. Of the 36 billion barrels of oil believed to lie on federal land, mainly in the Rocky Mountain West and Alaska, almost two-thirds are accessible or will be after various land-use and environmental reviews. And of the 89 billion barrels of recoverable oil believed to lie offshore, the federal Mineral Management Service says fourth-fifths is open to industry, mostly in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaskan waters.
Clearly, the oil companies are not starved for resources. Further, they do not seem to be doing nearly as much as they could with the land to which they've already laid claim. Separate studies by the House Committee on Natural Resources and the Wilderness Society, a conservation group, show that roughly three-quarters of the 90 million-plus acres of federal land being leased by the oil companies onshore and off are not being used to produce energy. That is 68 million acres altogether, among them potentially highly productive leases in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.
With that in mind, four influential House Democrats -- Edward Markey, Nick Rahall, Rahm Emanuel and Maurice Hinchey -- have introduced “use it or lose it” bills that would force the companies to begin exploiting the leases they have before getting any more. Companion bills have been introduced in the Senate, where suspicions also run high that industry's main objective is to stockpile millions of additional acres of public land before the Bush administration leaves town.
This cannot be allowed to happen. The Congressional moratoriums on offshore drilling were put in place in 1981 and reaffirmed by subsequent Congresses to protect coastal economies that depend on clean water and clean coastlines. This was also the essential purpose of supplemental executive orders, the first of which was issued by Mr. Bush's father in 1990 after the disastrous Exxon Valdez oil spill the year before.
Given the huge resources available to the energy industry, there is no reason to undo these protections now.