Frustrated consumers, angry over rising
gasoline prices, should ask the federal government why it is fostering
U.S. dependence on foreign oil by waging war against development
of our nation's domestic energy industry.
A major reason the United States imports
more than half of its oil from foreign sources is the federal
government's policy of barring oil exploration and production
on most federally-owned land. This is a tragedy given that there
are potentially huge amounts of oil that can be recovered.
Although the U.S. has about 20 billion
barrels of proved reserves, most Americans would be pleasantly
surprised to learn that experts believe the nation probably has
more than 110 billion barrels of recoverable oil, five times the
estimated current supply. A 1995 National Assessment of U.S. Oil
and Gas Resources prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
concluded that, in addition to the 20 billion barrels of proved
reserves, there are another 30 billion barrels of undiscovered
oil that could be recovered using conventional drilling and exploration
technology. There are at least 60 billion barrels of inferred
reserves which can be recovered with new technology. Including
the oil that can be extracted from shale and other unconventional
sources, the USGS believes the U.S. has 112.3 billion barrels
Full exploitation of this potential supply
would not make the U.S. energy independent, but it would help
decrease our dependence on the whims of the OPEC cartel. There
is one problem, however. The federal government will not get out
of the way.
Since 1983, federal land available for
oil and gas exploration in the western U.S. - where 67% of the
nation's onshore oil reserves and 40% of natural gas reserves
are located - has decreased by more than 60%.2 In total, more
than 300 million onshore acres of federal land have been effectively
removed from the market for oil exploration.3 The Clinton
Administration's proposal to prohibit new road construction on
43 million acres of federal land will further reduce oil development
as the roadless ban will affect areas where oil and gas exploration
is being conducted.4
The numbers are similarly disturbing for
offshore oil development. Over the years, Congress has prohibited
exploration and production on more than 460 million offshore acres,
which includes virtually all of the best prospects for major new
offshore discoveries outside the Western and Central Gulf of Mexico.5 This
relatively narrow portion of the Gulf of Mexico produces the majority
of current offshore oil and gas, but new reserves are increasingly
short-lived. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the
federal portion of offshore drilling, which currently comprises
18% of U.S. production, will rise to nearly a third of domestic
oil and gas supply within a decade. Failure to relax federal restrictions
in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean and on the Pacific
coast would amount to a de facto strangulation of domestic oil
By far, the most dramatic example of the
federal government's war against domestic oil production is the
prohibition on development of the oil-rich Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge (ANWR). The American Association of Petroleum Geologists
estimates that ANWR contains at least 9.2 billion barrels of oil.7 Other
estimates show that ANWR probably contains as much as 16 billion
barrels, making ANWR the single most important oil reserve in
the nation.8 But environmentalists, citing ecological concerns,
have successfully stopped drilling in ANWR even though oil drilling
equipment would cover just 2,000 of ANWR's 19 million acres.9
Oil isn't the only casualty of the federal
government's wrongheaded land-use policy. Access to the nation's
vast reserves of natural gas is also imperiled. This is of special
concern because natural gas is projected to be the primary energy
source to fulfill the nation's huge need for electricity. Energy
experts Daniel Yergin, Chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates,
and Thomas Robinson, author of a new study on natural gas, note
that "just 15% of our current electric generating capacity
is fired by natural gas. But an extraordinary 95% of the new proposed
generating capacity is gas-fired!" Yergin and Robinson also
say that "it will be up to exploration and production in
areas such as the Rocky Mountains... to stave off a more serious
gas supply shortfall."10
However, that will be difficult because
the federal government has barred energy development on huge amounts
of western land.
Decreasing dependence on foreign oil can
only be accomplished by aggressive development of the nation's
considerable energy resources. But as long as the federal government
continues to shut off its land to oil and natural gas production,
Americans can only look forward to a bleak future of decreasing
1 "The 1995 National Assessment of the United
States Oil and Gas Resources," United States Geological Survey,
Washington, DC, 1995.
2 "Why Access to Government Lands is Crucial,"
American Petroleum Institute, Washington, DC, May 2000.
3 "Access to Government Lands," American
Petroleum Institute, Washington, DC, January 1997.
4 "Why Access to Government Lands is Crucial."
5 "Access to Government Lands."
6 "Why Access to Government Lands is Crucial."
7 "The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,"
American Petroleum Institute, Washington, DC, May 2000.
8 Walter Williams, "Political Octane Performances,"
The Washington Times, July 6, 2000.
9 U.S. Representative Don Young (R-AK), Chairman
of the House Resources Committee, "Plight of Alaska Eskimos
Forgotten in ANWR Debate," Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
web site, downloaded from http://www.anwr.org/features/eskimos.htm
on March 18, 2000.
10 Daniel Yergin and Thomas Robinson, "A Quiet
Energy Crisis," The Washington Post, July 21, 2000.
John K. Carlisle is director of The National
Center for Public Policy Research's Environmental Policy Task