By Jack Rafuse
Just a few short months ago, President Obama asserted that America was in dire need of fresh supplies of domestic energy. In his State of the Union address, he assured the public that his administration would work to designate “new offshore areas for oil and gas development.” This was a welcome sign – the president appeared to be championing all domestic energy sources.
Since then, however, officials in the administration and in Congress seemed to be ignoring the President’s words and pushing a conflicting approach. Their words and actions gave rise to worried questions about who’s in charge and what those officials want our government to do about our domestic energy policy.
For example, consider the words and actions of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the most-senior government official in charge of all oil and natural gas leases on federal lands and waters. In Virginia, where I live, Secretary Salazar disregarded recent pleas from Gov. Bob McDonnell and our legislators in Richmond to allow oil and natural gas drilling offshore. Even though Congress had ended the ban on offshore drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) almost a year and half ago, Secretary Salazar and his Interior Department said that they needed another two years before it would even consider exploration and production of the conventional energy sources off our shores on the OCS.
Interior announced that position but gave no reasonable explanation for a decision that will force American consumers and businesses to wait years longer for access to new supplies of domestic oil and natural gas, energy that could help stabilize prices and provide fuel to power our economic recovery. The Secretary seemed to ignore the President’s words, the request of Virginia’s governor and legislators and the American public – which favors offshore drilling by a two-to-one margin!
In the Congress, the outlook for new domestic oil and natural gas production seemed even worse. As highlighted by the Institute for Energy Research, House-passed energy legislation – which Speaker Pelosi and her colleagues have hailed as a “bipartisan compromise” – places more domestic oil and natural gas off limits for America’s future energy mix. Some “compromise.”
Speaker Pelosi has touted that the legislation includes provisions for offshore drilling; in reality it only prohibits all exploration and production closer than 50 miles offshore and allows those activities only between 50 and 100 miles offshore. Yet according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), a staggering 97 percent of our offshore oil resources lie closer to shore where they are banned by the House bill. This is a reflection of the divided opinion in two of the most energy-rich states that are also two of the highest energy demand states, and two that have experienced the worst of the latest recession – California and Florida.
Finally this week came an apparent turn in the right direction. Speaking at Andrews Air Force Base earlier on Wednesday, President Obama, accompanied by Secretary Salazar, announced his intention to modify the current drilling ban, thus opening up waters 50 miles off the coast of Virginia and in some regions off Florida’s shores. This will be the first, new oil and natural gas activity in the Atlantic Ocean in nearly 30 years. According to the USGS, the Virginia lease area may hold 130 million barrels of economically-developable oil and 1.14 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas. But earlier USGS figures estimated the Atlantic resource at about 4 billion barrels of oil and 37tcf of natural gas. Thus, most of the Atlantic’s energy reserves are still off-limits, and key energy-rich areas – such as Alaska’s Bristol Bay – remain closed to energy exploration. Much remains to be done if the nation is to benefit by its own resources.
This was a long-awaited first step, and a good one. Despite it, however, it’s time for policymakers to stop playing politics with our energy security. Beneath America’s waters are more than 86 billion barrels of oil and over 420 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Hopefully, President Obama, his administration, and the Congress will recognize that we can no longer afford to continue jeopardizing America’s energy and economic future by restricting access to our affordable, reliable and abundant oil and natural gas.
Jack Rafuse, a former energy adviser to the Nixon administration, currently serves as principal of The Rafuse Organization, an independent consultancy on energy, security and trade issues.