As Congress and the White House joust over the proposed expansion of offshore drilling for oil and gas, the debate has hinged on 68 million acres where the petroleum industry is permitted to explore but hasn’t produced a saleable thing.
For Democrats, the figure is evidence that the companies aren’t doing enough to develop the access they’ve got, while Republicans say more drilling options are necessary to satisfy growing energy demands. Ostensibly, each side aims to control rising fuel costs. Yet amid the partisan cacophony are the many environmentalists who say that neither side has adequately promoted the conservation strategies that are the one sure solution to the nation’s energy troubles.
"We can drill on everyone’s front lawn from here to California and it won’t change the energy dynamic," said David Jenkins, director of Republicans for Environmental Protection. "It doesn’t take too smart a person to realize there’s a train wreck down the line."
"The single biggest step to cutting our oil dependence is to make cars go further on a single gallon of gas," said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, a new nonprofit group.
These comments arrive just one day after President George W. Bush removed the presidential ban on offshore drilling that was enacted by his father, President George H.W. Bush, in 1990. The move has no practical effect because Congress has a ban of its own. But it does put pressure on lawmakers in an election year when gas prices — now averaging more than $4 per gallon — are an ever-growing concern for most voters.
The debate has become highly partisan, with most Republicans supporting Bush and most Democrats fighting to keep the moratorium in place. Yet both sides support more domestic drilling somewhere, moving the debate into one not addressing how to wean the country from a reliance on fossil fuels, but whether the oil companies should get more real estate.
Environmentalists have lined up squarely behind the Democrats, arguing that the oil companies are exploiting the public’s increasing concerns over rising fuel costs to grab more federal land before the industry-friendly Bush administration leaves office. Like the sweeping privatization of the military in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, they say, the dynamic is clear: From chaos comes opportunity.
"Theirs is a political motivation," said Becker. "They have long wanted to have open season to drill for oil wherever the industry wants to do it."
Yet, increasingly, the environmental movement is pushing the notion that both parties have ignored the plain truth that oil is a finite resource, destined for extinction regardless — or especially — if more wells are drilled. Instead, they say, policy-makers should be moving the country away from its reliance on oil — a push with particular significance in the United States, which consumes 25 percent of the world’s oil but holds just 2 percent of its proven reserves.
"The attitude cuts across party lines," Jenkins said, pointing out some Democrats’ decades-long opposition to higher fuel economy standards. "They are just not looking long-term."
At issue are 68 million acres of federal land currently leased by the oil and gas industries without yielding a commercially viable product. Roughly 33 million of those acres fall offshore along the outer-continental shelf, or OCS. Democrats and some environmental experts say much of that land could be used for production — if only the oil companies wanted to do so.
"Companies sit on these [tracts] with the hope that the price will go up," said Richard Charter, a government relations consultant with Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund.
But Cathy Landry, a spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group, rejected that claim, arguing that the industry is constantly exploring these tracts for new reserves. Only after a process of seismic studies and exploratory drilling do companies decide whether production will be profitable for any given lease.
"No, they’re not producing," Landry said of the 68 million acres, "but it’s important to understand why they’re not producing. And it’s not because the oil and gas companies are sitting idly on these things."
Under current prohibitions, an estimated 18 billion barrels of OCS oil is off-limits in the lower 48 states, according to the Dept. of Interior’s Minerals Management Service. On Monday, Bush put the ball squarely in Congress’s court by lifting the moratorium.
"Congress must face a hard reality," he said from the White House Rose Garden. "Unless members are willing to accept gas prices at today’s painful levels — or even higher — our nation must produce more oil."
Critics say the impetus is simply to horde more land for the industry — a political move that would have little economic benefit.
Bolstering their argument, there’s evidence that lifting the drilling moratorium would have no immediate impact on prices at the pump. A 2007 report from the Energy Information Administration, for example, found that opening the OCS to greater oil drilling "would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030."
The report has bolstered Democratic opposition to the GOP strategy. "The Bush plan is a hoax," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Cal.) said in a statement. "It will neither reduce gas prices nor increase energy independence."
Democrats are pushing the Bush administration to ease gas prices by releasing part of the roughly 700 million barrels of oil held in emergency reserves — a position the White House has thus far rejected. "It’s unfortunate that the only place Democrats in Congress seem to be able to think we can get oil is from our insurance policy," White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters Monday. "That trick has been tried before and it doesn’t work."
Several Democratic proposals floating around Congress would shorten the timeline over which companies must produce gas or oil before losing their leases. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday that such a plan would increase supply without threatening larger swaths of the nation’s fragile shorelines.
"To the extent that we accelerate the leasing of those spots, we believe that that will accelerate the drilling and possible exploitation of the resources that are located in our country," Hoyer said. "We believe, if you want to do that, the best way to do it is to proceed initially with those areas that are already authorized."
But Congress is running out of time to act this year, leading observers to think nothing much will happen on the OCS issue before 2009. That leaves environmentalists hopeful that Democrats, who are expected to pick up congressional seats in both chambers, will push harder next year to address the climate change issue. To do so, however, will require abandonment of an energy policy so heavily weighted toward oil — and a population reared on the consumption of it.
"The problem is that we’ve spent 100 years building a reliance on oil," said Becker, "and now we’re trying to undo it in a few months."