June 18, 2008 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

Time to get serious about energy

About 50 miles off the coast of Florida, deep sea rigs are now drilling for oil. That makes perfect sense. For decades, the U.S. has banned any new offshore drilling, locking that oil away for a rainy day while we imported relatively cheap oil from overseas.

Now, with gas more than $4 per gallon, it's time to tap our domestic resources and send fewer petro-dollars overseas. But there's one problem: It's not American oil companies that are drilling. It's Chinese and Canadian companies, drilling on behalf of Cuba's autocratic government.

That's right. Even as pump prices soar and Americans fume, foreign powers are extracting a natural resource we could be developing for ourselves. The question of whether there will be drilling is settled. The only variable is who will get the fuel and the profits. Will they be sold by American firms or go to foreign markets and companies?

Today's soaring energy prices are, in many ways, our own fault. The federal government saddles energy producers with far too many restrictions and prohibitions. To bring prices down, Washington should step aside and let American firms compete freely with their foreign competitors. Here's a four-point energy action plan:

1) Drill for off-shore oil.Start with oil, because most of our economy does.

The price of crude is soaring because supplies are tight and investors expect them to remain so for years to come. But that doesn't have to be the case. There's plenty of untapped oil right in the United States.

The Interior Department estimates that the Outer Continental Shelf holds more than 19 billion barrels of oil. And this is probably a conservative prediction, since estimates tend to be low. Plus, technology will advance even as we're harvesting that fuel.

2) Tap ANWRCongress has put 17.5 million acres of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge off-limits to oil companies. Yet by drilling in a tiny portion (2,000 acres - about the size of an American airport) of ANWR, experts believe we could extract 10 billion barrels of oil. It takes us 15 years to import that much oil from Saudi Arabia.

All this oil and gas is off-limits only because we've voluntarily put it off-limits. It's past time to change that.

At the same time, we should be developing other domestic sources of power. After all, gasoline isn't the only energy source we'll need more of in the years ahead.

3) Flip the nuclear switch.Electricity, obviously, is critical to everyday life. Who would want to live without refrigeration, air conditioning, computers and hundreds of other modern devices? We'll need more juice in the decades ahead, and the best way to provide that is with nuclear power. Nukes provide a reliable source of energy with zero emissions. Just ask France, which generates 80 percent of its electricity using nuclear power. Yet the United States has not ordered a new reactor since the mid-1970s. Even if we decided today to start building new reactors, we lack the industrial infrastructure to do so. Again, federal policy has crippled the market.

The nuclear industry is probably the most regulated in the world, yet the federal government doesn't keep up its end of the deal. For example, Washington was legally obligated to start taking charge of all spent nuclear fuel 10 years ago. Yet it never has and, quite possibly, it never will.

Lawmakers should give the nuclear industry the responsibility for handling spent fuel. Washington could still set safety standards, but should allow producers to operate freely as long as they stay within those standards. Lawmakers also should ease licensing standards. Those steps would help open markets and get new plants started.

4) Let markets work.Finally, federal policy-makers should stop trying to pick winners. Since the 1970s, Washington has subsidized "infant" industries such as geothermal, solar and wind. Some 30 years later, not one has panned out, and "alternative" energy sources provide only a tiny portion of America's electrical power.

There may be places where alternative energy makes sense. For example, in Texas, investor T. Boone Pickens is backing a multibillion dollar project that will build the world's largest wind farm. He's building it because the market suggests it will generate both power and profits. That's a model to follow - where there's enough wind to make such a project work.

In short, if we want more energy, lawmakers will have to stop blocking efforts to produce it.

In an election year, politicians like to promise that our country will be "energy independent" soon. It's a worthwhile goal. But we can't even hope to achieve it until politicians stop making energy policy - and start letting American ingenuity find solutions.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

First appeared in the Washington Times