Last summer, a public angry over high gasoline prices was shouting "drill, baby, drill," and Washington finally listened. But now, the Obama administration has downgraded this policy to "drill, maybe drill," if even that.
When gasoline hit $4 a gallon for the first time last June, the American people demanded action. Polling showed more than 2-to-1 support for oil drilling in the 85 percent of America's offshore areas - including most of the Pacific, Atlantic and parts of the Gulf of Mexico -- that were off limits. In July, President Bush repealed these longstanding restrictions, and Congress followed suit at the end of September.
An estimated 19 billion barrels of oil -- nearly 30 years of current imports from Saudi Arabia -- as well as substantial natural gas reserves are estimated to lie beneath these offshore areas. And, it should be noted, these initial estimates in under-explored areas tend to be on the low side.
Most of these restrictions were put in place at the behest of environmentalists and other drilling opponents in the late 1980s and 1990s, a time when gasoline was cheap and the need for additional supplies was not seen as great. But they lingered on, even through rising pump prices and even though state-of-the-art technology has amassed a proven record of reducing the environmental impact and risk of spills.
But better late than never. The reversal of the restrictions in 2008 stands as one of the few truly pro-energy steps the federal government has taken in recent years.
However, removing the legal impediments is just the first step. The Department of the Interior is now handling the process of actually leasing these new areas to energy companies. And in one of his first moves as the Obama administration's secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar announced that he will slow this process, adding 180 days to the leasing schedule initially set out by the Bush administration.
By itself, a 180-day delay in an ongoing matter isn't unreasonable, especially for a new administration still getting its people in place. But the energy leasing process is already a lengthy one, and contains several steps that offer opportunities for environmentalists, coastal state governments, or others to weigh in with any objections or concerns. Mischaracterizing the already-methodical existing schedule as "a headlong rush of the worst kind," Salazar made clear that he prefers a snail's pace.
Even more worrisome, Salazar downplayed the benefits of increased offshore oil drilling, suggesting that offshore wind energy and other renewables are at least as important. "The Bush administration was so intent on opening new areas for oil and gas offshore that it torpedoed offshore renewable energy efforts," he complained.
Besides being untrue - the same day the Bush administration announced the proposed plan for oil and gas leasing it also announced a proposal to advance a major offshore wind-energy project - this statement also makes no sense. These offshore renewable energy projects are for electricity and would do nothing to help America meet its growing need for liquid fuels for our cars and trucks. Any administration attempts to obfuscate the need for more offshore oil with diversions about politically correct renewables won't do the American driving public one bit of good.
The $4-a-gallon gas is gone for now, and with it the urgency of "drill, baby, drill." Nonetheless, this is no time for complacency or for trotting out excuses not to drill. The only reason for the sharp drop in pump prices since last summer is a decline in demand due to the recession. But recessions don't last forever. Unless we begin to take action to increase supplies, prices will go right back up as soon as the economy turns around. Further, the process of bring new oil production on line takes several years, so the time to start is now.
Americans probably haven't seen the last of $4 gas. If such prices return, along with public anger, how will the American people judge an Obama administration that shut the door on increased domestic oil?
Ben Lieberman is senior policy analyst in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in McClatchy