- - Monday, July 9, 2012

While the Obama administration was taking a victory lap last week after the 5-4 Supreme Court decision to uphold the president’s signature legislative accomplishment, Obamacare, the Interior Department was using the media black hole to release a much-awaited five-year plan for offshore drilling. That plan reinstitutes a 30-year moratorium on offshore energy exploration that will keep our most promising resources locked away until long after President Obama begins plans for his presidential library. Given the timing, it is clear that the self-described “all of the above” energy president didn’t want the American people to discover that he was denying access to nearly 98 percent of America’s vast energy potential on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).

The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) of 1953 provided the interior secretary with the authority to administer mineral exploration and development off our nation’s coastlines. At its most basic level, the act empowers the interior secretary - in this case, former U.S. Sen. Kenneth L. Salazar of Colorado - to provide oil and gas leases to the highest-qualified bidder while establishing guidelines for implementing an oil and gas exploration-and-development program for the Outer Continental Shelf. In 1978, in the wake of the oil crisis and spiking gasoline prices, Congress amended the act to require a series of five-year plans that provide a schedule for the sale of oil and gas leases to meet America’s national energy needs.

But since taking office, Mr. Obama and Mr. Salazar have worked to restrict access to our offshore oil and gas resources by canceling lease sales, delaying others and creating an atmosphere of uncertainty about America’s future offshore development that has left job creators looking for other countries’ waters to host their offshore rigs. More than 3 1/2 years into the Obama regime, nearly 86 billion barrels of undiscovered oil on the Outer Continental Shelf remain off-limits to Americans. Alaska alone has about 24 billion barrels of oil in unleased federal waters. The Commonwealth of Virginia - where Mr. Obama has reversed policies that would have allowed offshore development - is home to 130 million barrels of offshore oil and 1.14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. But thanks to the president, Virginians will have to wait at least another five years before they can begin creating the jobs that will unlock their offshore resources.

Once you add those restrictions to the vast amount of shale oil that is being blocked, the administration has embargoed nearly 200 years of domestic oil supply. No wonder the administration wanted to slip its plan for the OCS under the radar when the whole country was focused on the health care decision.

But facts are stubborn things, and the Obama administration cannot run forever from its abysmal energy record. In the past three years, the government has collected more than 250 times less revenue from offshore lease sales than it did during the last year of the George W. Bush administration - down from $9.48 billion in 2008 to a paltry $36 million last year. Meanwhile, oil production on federal lands dropped 13 percent last year, and the number of annual leases is down more than 50 percent from the Clinton era.

Under the new Obama plan, those numbers will only get worse. The 2012-17 plan leaves out the entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the vast majority of OCS areas off Alaska. It cuts in half the average number of lease sales per year, requires higher minimum bids and shorter lease periods and dramatically reduces lease terms. Yet, somehow, we’re supposed to believe that our “all of the above” president is responsible for increased production and reduced oil import.

With oil hovering around $85 a barrel and nationwide gas prices nearly double what they were when Mr. Obama took office, you’d think the administration might implement a sensible plan to promote robust job creation and safe offshore energy development. Instead, what we get is the latest phase in the Obama administration’s war on affordable energy, filed under cover of media darkness while the nation was swallowing its Obamacare medicine.

Thomas J. Pyle is president of the Institute for Energy Research.