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Uphill battle on offshore drilling

U.S. government estimates 19 billion barrels of oil in restricted areas

Posted: Sunday, July 20, 2008

With only six months left in office, President Bush has finally repealed presidential restrictions on oil drilling in American waters.

Now it's Congress' turn to do the same and start bringing more domestic energy online.

To almost anyone outside of Washington, making better use of domestic energy resources would seem a painfully obvious step at a time when gasoline is topping $4 a gallon. However, much of the nation's energy potential remains off-limits. This includes 85 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf, thanks to longstanding government prohibitions.

Congressional restrictions have been in place since 1982, while the White House policy was instituted by the first President Bush in 1990 and was later extended by Bill Clinton. At the time, gas was little more than $1 a gallon and the need for additional oil supplies less pressing. However, the current president, despite battling $2, then $3, and now $4 a gallon gas during his presidency, had kept these outdated restrictions in place. Until now.

Bush should have taken this step between 2001 and 2006, when he had a Republican Congress more likely to cooperate with him. But better late than never, and Bush is now gamely urging Democratic leaders in Congress to "show that they have finally heard the frustrations of the American people by matching the action I've taken today, repealing the congressional ban, and passing legislation to facilitate responsible offshore exploration." But Democrats have made clear that it will be an uphill battle.

Several bills have been introduced in Congress that would allow each coastal state to decide whether it wants drilling off its coast. Thus far, the Democratic congressional leadership has refused to allow any of these measures to even come to a vote. Apparently, they don't want to anger environmentalists who oppose additional drilling, but they don't want to be on record against such a pro-energy measure in an election year. The Department of the Interior estimates there are 19 billion barrels of oil in these restricted areas, an amount equivalent to 30 years of current imports from Saudi Arabia. And such initial estimates tend to be low, sometimes by wide margins. The only reason not to drill is because of environmental concerns, especially the risk of offshore oil spills. However, new technologies greatly reduce the risks, and any new drilling would be subject to the strictest standards - something that can't be said of oil imports.

These technologies were put to the test by the brutal winds and waves of Hurricane Katrina, which tore through the only area where offshore drilling is common but didn't cause a single significant spill. Even the aesthetic concerns can be handled, by allowing states to limit platforms to areas too far from the shore to disturb coastal views. When it comes to energy policy, Bush is belatedly doing the right thing. We can only hope that it's not too late for something constructive to come of it.

• Ben Lieberman is senior policy analyst for energy and environment in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.



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