If you could boil down the ideal U.S. energy policy to a few words it would be this: We have to stop buying foreign oil. U.S. dependence on it creates too much political, economic, environmental and national security vulnerability.
The nation needs to find alternatives.
Gasoline at $4 per gallon seems to be concentrating the mind on this. In April, 20 percent of the cars sold in the U.S. were compacts or subcompacts. The sales of gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles were down 25 percent. Higher gas prices have pushed more people to use public transit; the trains are packed.
The run-up in prices has also accelerated talk about alternative fuels. Those ideas have been percolating for years, though they got a welcome boost recently from oilman T. Boone Pickens, who is bankrolling a campaign to promote wind energy and substitute propane gas as a fuel for cars.
And then there's oil.
We can treat our oil addiction, but it's not going to disappear. U.S. consumption has started to ebb, but the U.S. still accounts for 24 percent of the 86 million barrels of oil consumed in the world every day. We buy about two-thirds of the oil we use from overseas. Much of it comes from lands that are engulfed in political turmoil.
It's critical to reduce the U.S. dependence on oil. But it's most critical to reduce the U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
President George W. Bush has lifted an 18-year-old executive order banning oil and natural gas drilling in the coastal waters of the United States. The moratorium, put in place by his father in 1990 and extended in 1998 by President Bill Clinton, prohibited drilling for oil and natural gas in much of the Outer Continental Shelf, between three and 200 miles offshore.
Bush has also called on Congress to lift its moratorium, enacted in 1982, which protects almost the entire Outer Continental Shelf on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts from oil and gas leasing. (The Gulf Coast is partly exempt.)
So, should we open these areas to exploration and drilling? Yes. Exploration in these areas for domestic energy would help to reduce reliance on foreign oil.
The impact would be modest. A 2007 U.S. Energy Information Administration report estimated that 18 billion barrels could be recovered from the offshore areas currently off limits to drilling, equal to nearly 2½ years of U.S. consumption. And it would be seven to 10 years before we begin to see sustained supply from the coastal waters.
So Republicans ought to quit trying to make the argument that a vote by Congress to expand drilling will have a quick effect on gas prices. It won't. But if we begin to cut energy consumption and accelerate our move toward alternative fuels, the oil from new drilling will over time continue an exodus from foreign oil.
Drilling technology is cleaner and safer than it was when the White House and congressional moratoriums were imposed. Hurricanes Rita and Katrina caused some 600 cases of damage to pipelines, but the environmental costs of the damage were minimal, according to a report commissioned by the Interior Department.
New technology may allow drilling closer to shore without subjecting people to unsightly oil rigs. Companies would place their large, above-water physical structures beyond coastal sightlines, and the rigs would be tied to smaller, underwater structures closer to shore by undersea lines.
Senators John McCain and Barack Obama have moved in this direction. Yet House Speaker Nancy Pelosi won't even allow a vote on lifting the ban. She won't allow a vote even though polling shows increasing public support for expanded drilling.
Even if Congress were to lift the ban, there would be limits. States would most likely retain the power to veto drilling up to 100 miles from their shores. Nearly 10 billion of the 18 billion barrels of untapped oil is off the coast of California, according to the Energy Information Administration. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has nixed the idea of drilling off of California's coast.
The political calculus is changing, though. Technology is making drilling less of a risk and the demand for it is growing. The Democratic leadership in Congress has to start listening.