April 13, 2009 | Commentary on Energy and Environment
President Obama talks a lot about reducing dependence on foreign oil, making energy less expensive, and creating good jobs. Yet he's turning his back on an answer for all three - more oil drilling in American waters. The administration would do well to listen to the American people, who support this common-sense step by more than 2-to-1 margins.
President Bush and Congress gave Obama a great head start on this issue in 2008. In response to public anger last summer over $4 per gallon gas, they jettisoned longstanding executive and legislative restrictions on exploration and drilling in 85 percent of America's waters - nearly all the Atlantic, Pacific and parts of the Gulf of Mexico - that had been off limits. These areas are estimated to contain 19 billion barrels of oil - nearly 30 years of current imports from Saudi Arabia. And it should be noted that these initial estimates usually prove low.
Most of these restrictions were put in place at the behest of environmentalists and other drilling opponents in the late 1980s and 1990s. Gasoline was cheap then, and few thought about locating additional supplies. But the restrictions lingered on, even through rising pump prices and even though state-of-the-art technology has amassed a proven record of minimizing the environmental impact and the risk of spills.
But better late than never. Reversing the restrictions stands as one of the few truly pro-energy steps the federal government has taken in recent years.
Not only would increased domestic offshore oil production reduce the future price at the pump, it would also create up to 76,500 thousand well-paying energy sector jobs, according to a study by ICF International for the American Petroleum Institute.
However, removing the legal impediments is just the first step toward producing more American oil. The Department of the Interior is now handling the process of actually leasing these new areas to energy companies. And the Obama administration's secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar, has already reversed the pro-energy momentum from last year, announcing that he will slow down the process of opening any new areas to leasing.
Based on some of his past anti-domestic oil statements and actions, Salazar may try to stop it altogether.
To deflect criticism from his efforts to stall domestic oil exploration, Salazar has hyped the potential for "renewable energy resources, including wind, wave, and tidal energy." This is a red herring. These offshore renewable energy projects are for electricity (and very expensive electricity at that) and would do nothing to help America meet its growing need for liquid fuels for our cars and trucks.
Any administration attempts to confuse the need for more offshore oil with diversions about politically correct sounding renewables won't do the American driving public one bit of good. Last summer's $4 a gallon gas is gone (for now), but this is no time for complacency or for trotting out tired old excuses not to drill.
The only reason for the drop in the pump price since last summer is a decline in demand due to the recession. But recessions don't last forever. Unless we get serious about expanding domestic supplies, the pain at the pump will come back as soon as the economy turns around. The good news is that the public understands the need for American oil. The only question is whether the administration will listen.
Ben Lieberman is senior policy analyst in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in McClatchy-Tribune