Obama’s Oil Switch
He was against drilling before he was for it.


‘We absolutely need safe, responsible oil production here in America,” President Obama said during a speech last week in Miami. “That’s why,” in the midst of increasingly troubling warnings about record-high summer gas prices, the president promised to “make available more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources, from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico” and take “the next steps towards energy exploration in the Arctic.”

Even as the president set out his plan to open new, urgently needed drilling sites, he took credit for already opening vast swaths of land to drilling, saying that, “under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years.” America has “a record number of oil rigs operating right now — more working oil and gas rigs than the rest of the world combined.”

An Institute for Energy Research report shows that, indeed, American oil production is rising. However, this has nothing to do with Obama’s administration. The rise in overall oil production comes from state and private land. Since 2000, oil production on state and private land has increased 11 percent. Last year, state-land production jumped 14 percent. Production on privately held land went up 12 percent. The report singled out the Bakken wells, which are located on a privately held formation in North Dakota and which saw a 250 percent increase in production over the last decade. According to the report, oil production has actually gone down by 44 percent on federal lands over the same span. Last year alone, oil production on federal land decreased by 11 percent.

This decrease in oil produced on federal lands should surprise no one. After all, in 2008 Obama declared that he’d be the “president who will free this nation from the tyranny of oil once and for all.” One of his administration’s first moves upon taking office was to cancel 77 leases auctioned off at the end of 2008, which covered over 100,000 acres and were sold for $6 million. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar claimed that the leases had been granted hastily and without the proper environmental analysis, the “midnight” before the Bush administration was to leave office. Though the leases were sold in December 2008, this was just the end of a seven-year process, according to the Department of Interior itself. Nevertheless, these leases still haven’t been reinstated.

This early decision established a trend for the Obama administration, which continues today. In February, the administration rescinded plans drawn up during the Bush years to open land in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah for shale-gas exploration. This area includes the Great River Formation, reported by the Rand Corporation to hold between 1.5 and 1.8 trillion barrels of crude oil. Overall, the American Petroleum Institute claims that leases on federal lands are down 44 percent from 2007.

Obama’s policies have had the same effect on offshore drilling. After the Bush administration ended the moratorium on offshore drilling (and even then, only after oil hit $147 a barrel), the entire Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) was available for leasing. As a result of the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, Obama enacted a moratorium on permits for new deepwater oil wells (a “permitatorium”). The Interior Department didn’t approve another permit for a new well in more than 500 feet of water until February 28, 2011. Even now, the administration plans to open only part of the OCS. According to the report from the Institute for Energy Research, “a mere 2.2% of taxpayer-owned offshore areas are leased.”

Presidential campaigns always compel candidates to make dubious promises. The president’s vow to deliver increased oil production is something quite different: New drilling is something that Obama claims already to have successfully delivered to the American people, but that his administration has actually been fighting against since it took office. In the annals of campaign rhetoric, this is something much rarer.

— Nash Keune is a Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the Franklin Center.