Friday, February 13, 2009

Is the Obama Administration Suffering from Energy Amnesia?

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s recent announcement to delay a proposal to expand offshore leasing for oil and natural gas development (Reference 1) should sound warning alarms for those of us who remember the painful pump prices of $4/gallon only a few short months ago.

Secretary Salazar notes his request to slow down the process and extend the public comment period by 180 days for the proposed 5-year plan for offshore drilling should be viewed as a thoughtful approach to a contentious issue. Perhaps, but Americans should be wary of the new administration’s possible tactics to delay offshore development and remain vocal in their overwhelming support for increased access to our domestic resources.

In the midst of the high price environment of last summer, Americans understood our need for increased oil and natural gas resources and were shocked to learn that as Congress sent letters to OPEC demanding they produce more oil to lower the price, we were sitting on vast resources just off our coasts we weren’t allowed to touch. Nearly 85% of the offshore continental shelf has been historically off limits to development. According to the Minerals Management Service, those restricted areas are estimated to hold about 76 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 18 billion barrels of oil (Reference 2) While no one claims opening offshore drilling fully solves our bigger energy problems – it must be a major component in an all encompassing plan.

Following the record high oil prices of summer 2008, the majority of Americans were in favor of expanded access and exploration off of US coasts. Pressure from public opinion lead to the overturn of both a Presidential and Congressional moratorium, and the Department of Interior began working towards expanded leasing last fall. A poll by Rasmussen Reports conducted after the election and even as oil prices began their sudden retreat, continued to show overwhelming support for increased access and drilling with 68% of Americans in favor (Reference 3).

Like most things however, public opinion and political will have a tendency to ebb and flow. With the economy taking center stage, energy concerns are being pushed to the back burner. As we experience lower prices we should be very careful though to not forget the pain of just six months ago. Unfortunately most offshore development projects take years to develop before oil and natural gas make their way to consumers. Every minute we postpone responsible development, moves us farther down the road. Now is the time to be smart about our long term energy security and make the decisions today that will better position us for the future and inevitable economic recovery.

On the campaign trail, President Obama noted his willingness to include expanded drilling provisions as part of a comprehensive energy plan (Reference 4) yet no actions have been taken thus far to indicate his continued commitment to increasing domestic sources of oil and natural gas. And Salazar’s announcement has some wondering if Obama’s rhetoric was prompted by opinion polls and not a real commitment to smart energy policy.

Public opinion aside, the reality of our energy situation suggests oil and natural gas will continue to play a dominant role in our energy mix for decades to come. Today, oil and natural gas make up over 60% of our total energy consumption mix in the United States. More importantly, experts expect future energy use to continue to be dominated by oil and natural gas well beyond 2030 (Reference 5). While many alternative technologies offer promise, none are expected to displace demand for oil and natural gas in the near to medium term. Ignoring our obvious needs is not only foolish but dangerous in these sensitive economic times.

During this time of economic instability, pigeon-holding the largest and most reliable aspect of our energy economy is not sound policy. Poor policies of the past have led us to our current situation: volatile energy prices and a 60% dependence on foreign oil. The new administration has an opportunity to promote environmentally sound development of our offshore resources while creating jobs, improving our national security and mitigating future supply shortages.

Let’s hope this recent action by Salazar isn’t a veiled attempt to slow down and derail one of our better hopes for a more stable energy future.


1. Palmer, A. (2009). Public Comment Period on Bush Administration’s Drilling Plan Extended. Congressional Quarterly Online. <> (2009, February 10).
2. Minerals Management Service, (2007). Oil and Gas Resources in OCS Areas Unavailable for Leasing and Development. < > (2007, May).
3. Rasmussen Reports (2008). 68% Back Offshore Drilling, Only 44% Think Obama Agrees. <> (2008, November).
4. Associated Press. (2008). Obama Shifts On Offshore Oil Drilling. <> (2008, August 1).
5. U.S. Energy Information Administration. Annual Energy Outlook. 2008. P. 58.


Sam Brown said...

Although I agree that we will need a mix of solutions, and understand that oil and gas will be the biggest part of this mix for many years, I in no way think that offshore drilling should take precedent before a comprehensive energy plan is introduced. Taking advantage of our own reserves is important but will have minimal effect on the long term solution given our consumption rates. Offshore reserves of 18 billion barrels of oil in the restricted areas may sound like a lot, but given that US consumption of oil is 7.6 billion barrels per year, you can see how minimal this really is. Again, I agree that there needs to be a mix of solutions, but I think there are more pressing matters to address (like passing a long-term PTC for wind and increasing our transmission infrastructure) that will have a much greater impact on the future of our energy security.

Michael E. Webber, Ph.D. said...

Don't forget that many prominent political leaders of both parties have supported the drilling bans at one time or another primarily because they are balancing a tradeoff between getting access to valuable oil and gas and protecting the value of their beaches. President Reagan signed a congressional ban, President Bush (the elder) issued an executive ban, and Governor Bush (Florida) also issued a ban while in office. In other words, Obama is not the first to be hesitant to open up the OCS.