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Heritage Foundation: The Drive for More Domestic Drilling

One good effect of high gasoline prices? Some in Washington are finally talking sense about what to do about them.

The president has endorsed long-overdue congressional efforts to open up American waters to oil exploration and drilling. In a June 18 speech, President Bush announced that "we should expand American oil production by increasing access to the Outer Continental Shelf."

Currently, 85 percent of American-controlled waters — the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and parts of offshore Alaska — are off limits to energy production. John McCain has also endorsed opening these areas, thereby injecting the issue into the presidential debate.

Several pro-drilling bills have been introduced in Congress. Perhaps the most promising approach is found in the Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act, which would allow each coastal state to decide if it wants to allow drilling off its shores.

The DOER Act and similar bills, however, are Republican-sponsored measures with little or no support from the Democratic majority, which will decide if they even come to a vote.

That’s too bad, since these offshore restrictions are a relic of the past. They were put in place in the 1980s and 1990s when gasoline was little above $1 a gallon and the need for additional domestic oil was low.

At the time, the political path of least resistance was to give in to environmentalists and coastal developers and put vast areas out of reach. Even with the quadrupling of energy prices since then, the law has yet to be seriously challenged.

How much oil is out there? According to the Department of the Interior, these restricted deepwater areas contain 19 billion barrels of oil, about 30 years' worth of imports from Saudi Arabia. And these initial energy estimates have a track record for being low.

Consider the Central and Western Gulf of Mexico, the only area where offshore American drilling isn’t severely limited, which has produced several times more oil and natural gas than originally predicted.

The excuses not to drill are amazingly weak. The most common one is that there’s not enough oil out there to make much difference. But these "drop in the bucket" arguments would come true only in the unlikely event that the amount of oil found falls well short of the estimates.

In any event, the worst thing critics can say about the economics of expanded drilling is that it might reduce the pain at the pump only a little. But that’s hardly a reason not to go ahead.

Also overblown are the environmental concerns. Advances in technology have greatly reduced the risk of oil spills, as was amply proven in late August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf but didn’t cause a single offshore mishap of any significance.

Plus, any new drilling would be subject to the world’s strictest safety and environmental standards. Even the aesthetic concerns from coastal property owners have little merit, as production can easily be limited to platforms so far offshore that they can’t be seen from it.

Polling shows that a clear majority of Americans support more domestic oil, which is making congressional opponents really desperate. Their latest and perhaps silliest excuse is that new leases are unnecessary because the energy companies aren’t acting on the ones they already have. They point out the number of leased acres without wells, but that’s because most of those areas don’t have any oil.

That’s the problem. The limited waters where drilling is allowed are beginning to show signs of being picked over; many explored tracts don’t contain oil and others that do have long been dotted with wells that are in their declining phases. All the more reason to explore the vast expanses of new territory.

Our anti-domestic oil policy made little sense at $2 a gallon, but even less at $3 and less still now at $4. Congressional opponents may try to stall, but as long as gasoline prices stay high, the pressure to take this obvious and useful step won’t go away.

Ben Lieberman is Senior Policy Analyst for Energy and Environment in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).