May we drill now, please?
At this writing, circumstances in the Middle East may change between this sentence and my last paragraph.
What began in mid-December as a Tunisian uprising that sent President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali into Saudi exile on January 14 quickly inspired Cairo’s Tahrir Square rebellion. Hosni Mubarak — who ruled Egypt for 29 years, eight more than Cleopatra — hastily retired when his people hounded him from Heliopolis Palace into his vacation compound in Sharm el-Sheik.
Just outside Mubarak’s hideaway, two Iranian warships this week floated north through the Suez Canal. This was the Iranian navy’s first appearance in the Arab equivalent of the Panama Canal since 1979’s revolution installed the Ayatollah Khomeini and his joyless, sexist, bloodthirsty theocracy.
Egypt now is ruled by a military “junta” — as National Public Radio calls the interim government, employing a word that went the way of Latin America’s military dictatorships. Egypt’s “junta” is trying to hold things together until elections occur. It also faces a new challenge: Libyan refugees pouring in across the sands to escape their own country’s chaos.
Eastern Libya is controlled by regular citizens, freshly armed by soldiers who largely disobeyed orders to shoot their fellow countrymen. That ugly duty has fallen to trigger-happy mercenaries imported for that purpose from Chad, Niger, and the Sudan by the self-styled Mad Dog of the Middle East, Moammar Gaddafi. Soon after ordering two fighter jets to bomb his constituents, prompting the pilots to defect to Malta, Gaddafi ranted on Libyan TV for 75 minutes.
“I have not yet ordered the use of force,” Gaddafi claimed Tuesday. “When I do, everything will burn.”
Citing a Libyan source, former Middle East CIA officer Robert Baer wrote at Time.com that Gaddafi has instructed his operatives to sabotage Libya’s oil fields, supposedly to show Libyans that without Gaddafi, things could get really crazy. Libyan production already is down 25 percent, and Italy’s Eni and Spain’s Repsol have suspended operations there.
Nearby, relatively calm and reasonable Morocco suddenly faces its own woes. On Monday, Interior Minister Taeib Cherqaoui announced that among some 37,000 demonstrators, at least 128 people were wounded while five charred bodies were found in a bank that protesters had torched.
In Bahrain’s capital of Manama, Pearl Square witnesses daily protests and occasional state-sponsored bullets aimed squarely into the stomachs of peaceful demonstrators.
Yemen could spin into total disarray, with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — led by American-born radical Muslim Anwar al-Awlaki — waiting to pounce on any emerging opportunity. He is the spiritual leader to accused crotch-bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and alleged Fort Hood shooter Major Nidal Malik Hasan.
Next door, the House of Saud — simultaneously loyal U.S. allies and two-faced sponsors of Islamofascist mosques and Wahhabi terror — nervously watches these developments.
So do Israelis, who must feel like residents of the nicest mansion in Malibu . . . just as the neighbors’ homes catch fire, and the Santa Ana–wind–driven flames race up the canyon with menacing urgency.
And comfortably across the Atlantic, Americans absorb all of this in justifiable bewilderment. We hope that matters evolve as well as they did in autumn 1989, when one Communist domino toppled into the next and Karl Marx tumbled onto the ash heap of history, exactly as Ronald Reagan promised. Americans also worry that the Arab street, happy today to shed the shackles of decades-old dictatorships, soon might look less cheerful. This happened in Iran, where the Shah’s heavy hand yielded to the iron fists of the globally meddlesome mullahs.
Flowing through this real-life Hieronymus Bosch canvas is the same ingredient in the paints that define his masterpieces: oil.
Petroleum futures Thursday reached $103.41 per barrel, their highest price since September 2008. Unleaded gasoline averages $3.24 per gallon — up 55 cents, year-on-year. Summer road trips may push prices higher.
Amid all of this, the Obama administration treats America’s domestic-petroleum supply like the Smithsonian’s Hope Diamond: something to be observed and admired, but not touched.
“The Bureau of Land Management has created a lot of uncertainty related to onshore leases,” says the American Petroleum Institute’s Erik Milito. “They have added redundant steps in the land-use-study process. They are adding layers that delay opportunities for oil and gas development on federal land.”
The picture at sea is no better.
“The administration has at least 40 exploration plans and 40 development plans that have not been acted upon,” Milito adds. “We understand that dozens of oil-spill-response plans require action as well. This is in addition to the environmental assessments that must now be completed for the exploration plans. They cannot approve permits to allow drilling to commence until they address those items.”
“In addition, this may be the first year since 1964 where we will not have a lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico,” Milito continues. “A recently announced supplemental environmental-impact report for the Gulf may not be ready until 2012. Holding these lease sales is critical to our economic and energy security because they provide the opportunity for long-term investments in American jobs and energy sources.”
Short-term delays can cause long-term stasis. A Wood Mackenzie study commissioned by the API found that a one-year delay in granting permits could render “sub-economic” 13 out of 25 deepwater oil and gas fields. Those 13 fields represent 2.7 billion barrels in potential oil reserves (which would satisfy about five months of U.S. demand) and 540,000 barrels of daily output. Such a loss would slash Gulf of Mexico production by 27 percent.
President Obama can bow before windmills, and Vice President Biden can cheerlead for a shiny, new, national train set. But none of that changes the fact that — like it or not — America relies heavily on oil today, for jobs, commerce, and our very existence. As bad luck would have it, oil comes mainly from an area that is as stable as a prison riot. “Precarious” barely describes America’s predicament. And yet, a huge part of the solution — domestic oil and gas — lies just beneath our feet, if only Uncle Barack would let us open the basement door and light this dormant furnace.
May we drill now, please?
— New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.