Politics & Policy

The Audacity of Nope

Obama's oil policy.

To plan a long and challenging journey, would you reject Mapquest and GPS and only consult an atlas from the 1970s? Unlikely. But to pinpoint America’s offshore oil deposits, Congressional Democrats, starting with Senator Barack Obama, love disco-era maps. Despite his conditional, latter-day support for limited offshore drilling, Obama is the sole sponsor of legislation that would block geological research to locate offshore oil.

Federal officials currently employ estimates based primarily on two-dimensional, black-and-white maps that oil-industry surveyors produced in the 1970s and furnished to the Interior Department. Since 1981, Congressional appropriations amendments effectively have barred Interior from financing or permitting survey expeditions — particularly and precisely in the 85 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf where oil production and exploration are verboten.

In 2005, Congress mandated new, quintennial inventories, then gave Interior six months and $0.00 to assess how much oil and natural gas undergird the 1.76 billion-acre Outer Continental Shelf — a laughably impossible task.

“They couldn’t even board a research vessel,” explains a congressional staffer who studies these issues. Interior’s “paper inventory,” the aide adds, “examined Canadian and West African coastal data, imagined where those sediments pooled before the Continental Drift, then extrapolated to guesstimate what’s off our Atlantic coast today.”

The resulting document states:Resource estimates are highly dependent on the current knowledge base, which has not been updated in 20 to 40 years for areas under congressional moratorium. . . . ” Translation: “We have no idea what’s really out there.”

Obama’s “Oil SENSE Act” would repeal the 2005 Energy Policy Act’s authorization of these inventories. Introduced in January 2007, S.115 would leave decision makers with Carter Administration maps drawn with pre-PC technology. This is like engineering a Space Shuttle mission with slide rules.

Obama’s bill would prohibit expanded use of 3-D, color seismic techniques that locate and measure underwater oil deposits — even though those tools are in wide use where offshore drilling is allowed, such as the western Gulf of Mexico. In October 1999, President Clinton’s Energy Department evaluated the environmental quality of 1970s’ 2-D equipment against last decade’s 3-D technology. With the latter, Energy concluded, “Overall impacts of exploration and production are reduced because fewer wells are required to develop the same amount of reserves.” In 1970, 17 percent of offshore wells struck oil. By 1997, that figure was 48 percent.

Contemporary 4-D surveying adds the dimension of time. Satellites help find and quantify subsea deposits, track their flows, and predict their next steps. Some 70 percent of 4-D wells hit oil.


Obama’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Drill policy spurns these marvels and embraces outdated information gathered with obsolete instruments. This is the audacity of ignorance.

Adults should not make decisions in willful obliviousness. Democrats like Obama prefer not to know what riches rest off America’s coasts — since, from their perspective, only bad things can arise politically from finding good things scientifically. They resemble kindergartners who cover their ears and hum loudly to muffle their parents’ unwelcome words.

Meanwhile, Americans struggle to fuel planes, trains, and automobiles. Despite this national nightmare, Congressional Democrats fled on a five-week summer vacation, rather than vote on Republican amendments to extend offshore drilling. Democrats chose suntan oil over oil production.

Instead of voting on Republican energy proposals, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., California) dispatched her colleagues to build sandcastles. Nevertheless, GOP representatives unofficially are pleading their case to tourists inside the House chamber.

Moreover, ten Republican senators wrote President Bush on August 1 to request an executive order for an onshore seismic survey of the hydrocarbon resources beneath the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge’s 1.5 million acres.

“The last seismic survey of the area is 25 years old (winter of 1983-84), and the United States government is operating with outdated information of America’s energy inventory,” the letter states. “This would be purely informational and environmentally non-intrusive,” it continues (emphasis in the original). “Modern seismic testing . . . is roughly equivalent to photography in terms of its environmental impact on land.”

This letter was signed by Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn of Texas, and six other GOP senators, including ranking Republicans of four committees. According to Jim Guirard — president of Washington, D.C.’s TrueSpeak Institute and former chief of staff to the late Senator Russell Long (D., Louisiana) — who encouraged senators to send this letter, other senators were eager to sign on, but ran out of time to do so as Congress’ careened toward adjournment.

Senate Democrats favor doubling gasoline prices rather than considering further fuel-supply development, as Human Events’ Jed Babbin has observed. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (R., Kentucky) asked to debate pro-energy legislation. Senator Ken Salazar (D., Colorado), representing majority Democrats, objected. And if gasoline reached $5.00-per-gallon? Salazar said no. $7.50? McConnell wondered. Salazar: Nyet. McConnell continued, “I would renew my request with the modification that the trigger be $10 a gallon at the pump.” Salazar replied: “I object.”

Late last month, Senator Charles Schumer (D., New York) complained, “It’s Christmas in July” as he denounced oil-industry earnings, even though that sector’s 8.3 percent margin for 2007 lagged the chemical and electronics industries’ 12.7 and 14.5 percent respective returns. “Big Oil is plowing these profits into stock buybacks instead of increasing production,” Schumer huffed.

Naturally, it’s hard for Big Oil to generate more petroleum when it cannot open new refineries, develop the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, broaden offshore production, nor even modernize its underwater maps. This is like screaming at Mom because dinner is late — while blocking the kitchen door.

For all their supposed sophistication, Obama, Pelosi, Salazar, Schumer, and their caucus-mates are anti-intellectual eco-Luddites. Democratic bullheadedness deserves the republic’s scorn.

Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution© 2008 Scripps Howard News Service

Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor, a contributor to National Review Online, and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.


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