July 24, 2007 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

Untapped oil supplies

Has the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries infiltrated Congress? If so, that sure would explain the latest energy bill.

Make that the anti-energy bill. Both the already-passed Senate version and the upcoming House one are bad enough for what they do contain. But they're worse for what they don't - even one drop of additional domestic oil.

America remains the world's only oil-producing nation that has placed a significant amount of its reserves off-limits. Yet the lawmakers behind these misguided "energy" bills seem more than happy to keep it that way.

Make no mistake, there is still plenty of oil to be found here. A recent Interior Department study estimates 21 billion barrels of oil lie untapped beneath federally controlled lands, mostly in the West and Alaska. That equals 30 years of current imports from Saudi Arabia.

There's a lot of natural gas as well. Unfortunately, the department found "just 3 percent of onshore federal oil and 13 percent onshore Federal gas are accessible under standard lease terms." In other words, only this tiny percentage of energy can be produced without serious legal or regulatory impediments. Some of the rest is accessible, but only if energy companies wade through all the red tape.

Most disturbing of all, "51 percent of oil and 27 percent of the natural gas are presently closed to leasing" - or completely off-limits.

Granted, few Americans want unrestricted oil and gas wells in our treasured national parks or historical sites. However, the current drilling restrictions go well beyond any such reasonable limits. This is especially true given advances in drilling technology that have dramatically reduced both the above-ground environmental footprint and the risk of spills.

A companion Interior Department report on offshore oil is much the same. About 19 billion barrels of oil sit below the 85 percent of our territorial waters where drilling is not allowed. It's worth noting that - as with the onshore estimates - these initial energy inventories usually prove to be on the low side.

Granted, America's untapped oil is not nearly enough to end imports from hostile regimes. But it is enough to reduce them. As things now stand, however, imports are gradually increasing, from less than 40 percent during the Arab oil embargo days of the 1970s to more than 60 percent today, and still rising.

More American drilling is a partial solution to our energy challenges. We should be doing all we can - with sensible environmental safeguards - to maximize domestic output. Producing extra barrels of "Made in America" crude would enable us to lower prices and to compete with imports.

However, congressional efforts to reduce the restrictions on domestic energy production have fallen short in previous years. And now the new Congress isn't even trying. The Senate energy bill does nothing to lift existing restrictions, and the House version wants to add new limits. For example, the House seeks several more layers of red tape for a regulatory process already the slowest of any energy-producing nation, effectively placing additional oil off-limits.

Of course, OPEC hasn't infiltrated Congress. Why would it want to? Surely America's current domestic energy policy suits it just fine.

Ben Lieberman is senior policy analyst in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ben Lieberman Senior Policy Analyst, Energy and Environment
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

First appeared in The Washington Times