The clock is ticking on the congressional moratorium on access
to billions of barrels of domestic oil beneath American waters.
President Bush already rescinded the White House prohibitions on
access to this energy, so the congressional restrictions are the
only thing standing between 19 billion barrels of additional
domestic oil and the citizens who need it. If Congress does not act
to renew these outdated, anti-energy, and anti-consumer
restrictions, these areas will be opened to exploration and
drilling beginning on October 1. Some are calling this Energy
Freedom Day, and it would be a welcome and long overdue step toward
dealing with high gasoline prices.
As it stands right now, 85 percent of America's territorial
waters are off-limits to energy exploration and production.
Beginning in 1982, Congress restricted more and more areas through
annual Department of the Interior (DOI) appropriations. DOI has
authority over the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), which includes
most areas more than three miles offshore. Through this annual
process, Congress chose to deny DOI the funding necessary to
conduct leasing of new offshore areas to oil companies. It is
important to note that Congress could have, at any time, passed a
law permanently putting these areas out of reach, but it chose not
to do so. The restrictions must be renewed annually.
These off-limits areas have grown, and now comprise nearly the
entire coasts of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and the eastern
Gulf of Mexico-and the congressional moratoria have become a
standard feature of each year's DOI appropriation's bill. Until
recent years, these restrictions were easily renewed with little
controversy, but with the dramatic rise in oil and gasoline prices,
as well as the desire to reduce oil imports from unfriendly foreign
countries, there have been several legislative efforts to eliminate
them. Thus far, none of these efforts have been successful.
In 1990, President George H.W. Bush issued a presidential
directive withdrawing new areas from offshore exploration and
drilling. These White House restrictions overlapped the
congressional ones. In 1998, President Clinton extended these
restrictions through 2012. For his first seven years in office, the
current President had not seen fit to lift them. Skyrocketing
gasoline prices changed that, and last month President George W.
Bush eliminated the executive branch restrictions and urged
Congress to do the same. The ball is now in Congress's court.
The Energy Potential
Recent DOI estimates are that these off-limits offshore areas
contain 19.1 billion barrels of oil, the equivalent of 30 years of
current imports from Saudi Arabia. It should also be noted that
these initial energy estimates often prove to be low. For example,
in the central and western Gulf of Mexico-the only offshore area
not severely restricted-production has already exceeded original
expectations by several billion barrels, and it is ongoing.
Improved technologies have allowed this oil to be extracted with
minimal risk of spills. Indeed, natural seepage from the sea floor
is a much larger source of oil in American waters than is offshore
drilling. Even safer technologies would be used in any future
It is worth noting that both the congressional and White House
restrictions were first put in place at a time when gasoline was a
little more than $1 a gallon and the need for additional domestic
oil supplies was not seen as critical. Clearly, times have
The Next Step for Congress
Even if Congress does not pass a bill that affirmatively opens
up these offshore areas, it could accomplish the same end by simply
letting the existing restrictions lapse. This Congress has not yet
passed its DOI appropriations bill (or any other appropriations
bill, for that matter), in large part because Republicans insisted
on adding amendments to open up the OCS and the Democratic
leadership would not allow a vote on them. The current
appropriations-and their restrictions on DOI spending for offshore
leasing-are set to expire on September 30.
The next day, October 1, could then be Energy Freedom Day. Of
course, it will take time for DOI to lease these areas and for the
energy companies to develop them, but the process can at least
begin. And given the strong public support for expanded domestic
drilling, we can not start soon enough. When Congress does finally
write its budget legislation, it should not stand in the way of
Energy Freedom Day.
Ben Lieberman is Senior
Policy Analyst in Energy and the Environment in the Thomas A. Roe
Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage