by Edward Flattau
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s feverish internet campaign to open up all public lands to oil drilling in response to soaring gasoline prices is based on a false premise. There is no truth to his contention, echoed by President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and the Republican congressional minority, that we are being penalized at the pump for having denied the energy industry total access to drill on federal acreage.
Forget for a moment that drilling in protected wilderness areas would have no immediate effect on the price of gasoline and a negligible effect in the future. Let’s not dwell on the severe negative environmental impacts that the additional drilling would have on pristine wilderness currently off limits to commercial development, not to mention the diversion from expanding the crucial use of alternative fuels.
Instead, let’s focus on a figment of Gingrich’s bluff and bluster, namely that the energy industry is being prevented from engaging in large scale exploration and commercial development on our public lands.
According to the federal government’s own data, the oil companies have access to a substantial portion of federally controlled territory both on land and at sea. For example, Interior Department statistics disclose that the industry has 7500 active leases in the Outer Continental Shelf (with only 1655 of them having been utilized to this point. Talk about crocodile tears!).
More than 80 percent of the nation’s public lands are open to energy development. Yet again, the oil and gas industries have not followed through on many of the leases they hold within 68 million acres of federally owned land and coastal waters. You have to wonder about the industry’s lethargic pace when the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that only 20 percent of the natural gas in waters off our shores is in conservation areas closed to development.
As for oil shale, Gingrich cites a Rand Corporation study in which it is claimed that the equivalent of 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil or three times the current reserves of Saudi Arabia lie beneath the surface of lands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. That leads Gingrich to call for an all-out effort to exploit the deposits wherever they might be situated.
Not so fast Newt! The Wilderness Society, a Washington-based public interest organization, points out that in the three western states, more than three million acres known to contain oil shale are already either owned or leased by energy companies. More importantly, creation of a commercially viable oil shale development program that would not be an environmental disaster is estimated to be years away. Parenthetically, it is hoped that by that time, clean renewable energy sources will dominate, nullifying the need to massively dig up the Rocky Mountain states.
So what is behind Gingrich’s frenzied push for more drilling? As friends of the energy industry, Gingrich and his fellow Republicans empathize with the oil executives’ desire to have no limitations on their business ventures. And with gasoline at four dollars a gallon, the energy industry senses an opportunity to play on public fears in order to gain the whole ball of wax.
Politically, Gingrich and his Republican compatriots see more drilling as a simplistic call to action that plays upon Americans’ frustration with escalating gasoline prices and that possesses the potential to portray Democrats as obstructionists. Indeed, the former Speaker wastes no time demonizing the Democrats for not giving carte blanche to unrestrained drilling, labeling them the “No We Can’t Left” in Congress.
Exploiting ignorance is the name of Gingrich’s game. He must not be allowed to get away with it.
@Copyright 2008, Edward Flattau