With gasoline prices above $4 a gallon and no
relief in sight, it makes perfect sense to open some of America's
extensive off-limits areas to oil drilling. Yet the Democratic
Congress refuses to budge, citing a number of weak excuses. Among
"The extra energy would be a drop in the bucket." Drilling critics
use low-ball figures for the amounts of oil in places such as
Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and the 85 percent
of America's territorial waters now off limits to exploration and
production. Even assuming they're right that expanded drilling
would reduce the pain at the pump only a little, that's hardly a
reason not to proceed. More likely, the energy potential is
substantial. Midrange estimates are that just a few thousand acres
near the edge of ANWR's 19.6 million acres contain 10 billion
barrels of oil, and restricted offshore areas hold an additional 19
billion. That's equal to about 48 years of current imports from
Saudi Arabia. And such initial estimates tend to be low, sometimes
by wide margins.
"The environmental risks are too great." In fact, the risks are
overstated. Advances in technology have greatly reduced the
above-ground footprint and the risk of spills. And new production
would be subject to the strictest environmental and safety
standards, something that can't be said of the massive quantities
of oil we import.
The recent track record speaks for itself. In 2005, when Hurricane
Katrina ripped through the western part of the Gulf of Mexico - the
one offshore area where drilling isn't severely restricted - it
didn't cause a single serious offshore spill. And onshore drilling
in Prudhoe Bay, near ANWR, has been under way for decades with
minimal adverse impacts (indeed, the caribou herds are more
plentiful now), and it used technology far less environmentally
friendly than would be required now.
Nonetheless, coastal states have legitimate concerns, which is why
the most promising bills allow each state to decide whether it
wants drilling off its waters. For example, some may want to limit
offshore platforms to areas too far from the shore to disturb
coastal views. Overall, the environmental and aesthetic concerns
can be handled without an all-out ban on new oil production.
"Companies don't need new leases. They're sitting on the ones they
The implication here is Big Oil is deliberately sitting on
potential gushers to boost prices. Drilling opponents are assuming
every leased acre has oil beneath it, but in truth most do
In other cases, oil exploration and development is under way. But
the process takes many years, in part, ironically, because of the
extensive post-lease permitting process and other regulatory
requirements. In reality, we're getting as much as possible out of
the relatively few areas where drilling is allowed, which is why we
need to open new ones.
"It would take too long for the oil to become available." Bill
Clinton complained ANWR oil would take up to 10 years to come
online, 13 years ago, when he vetoed an ANWR-drilling bill.
Actually, it probably wouldn't take nearly that long. Perhaps half
of that time is because of regulatory delays that lawmakers could
Moreover, some market analysts believe that if America signaled
its seriousness about expanding domestic supplies by opening new
areas, prices would start dropping before the extra oil hit the
market. In any event, America's energy challenges aren't going to
disappear in a few years, so we need to begin the process now of
providing future supplies.
"More oil would discourage alternatives." In fact, the research
into alternative fuels and vehicles has been under way for years,
and has been accelerated by the rise in gasoline prices.
This research will continue with or without new oil
We need to be realistic about the prospects for alternatives such
as cellulosic ethanol, hydrogen fuel cells, electric vehicles and
others. It takes time to develop and market viable alternatives.
The task will probably take two decades or more.
The age of oil, meanwhile, will be with us for at least that long,
so we ought to ensure it's as affordable as possible. More oil and
alternatives is not an either/or proposition. We need both.
The restrictions on domestic oil were enacted in the 1980s and
'90s when gasoline was little more than $1 a gallon. Much has
changed since then. There simply is no good reason to continue
keeping so much American oil off limits.
Ben Lieberman is
senior policy analyst for energy and environment in the Thomas A.
Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage