Offshore Drilling: We Have a Choice of Simple Confusion or Outright Lies


Every day it seems gas prices are edging higher. For almost a year, oil prices have increased by 1 percent per week. A year ago, $100 per barrel seemed a nightmare fantasy to many. Today, oil at that price is viewed almost nostalgically -- as the good old days. In the face of growing price pressures during an election year, the Democratic and Republican parties have radically different answers, radically different approaches to the challenge. At the end of the day, neither is dealing with the fundamental challenges facing humanity with full honesty. One party seems caught in confusion and disarray; the other is providing direct answers to the challenge based on fundamental dishonesty -- answers that will aggravate, rather than solve, our problems.

Newt Gingrich has put forward a campaign calling for Drill Here! Drill Now! Pay Less! The campaign aims to gather millions of signatures for a petition to deliver to Congress, amid much press attention, demanding that the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) and all areas of the offshore continental shelf (OCS) be opened to new oil drilling. This is being offered as a response to both our ever-growing dependence on imported oil and the current price crisis.

Seemingly done to test the waters, Gingrich's petition quickly gained attention and conservative support. Leading Republicans and Republican-leaning columnists echoed the narrative that the solution to all of America's problems is to drill, drill, drill. This is now the Republican mantra, as they seem to believe that they have found a winning political issue, no matter what the implications of this "win" might be for America's future. But the effort is reliant on such blatant spin that it is essentially a Big Lie.

While it extends seemingly across the entire right wing noise machine, a few examples provide a window on the disingenuous and deceitful words supporting the call to drill the hole even deeper rather than working to solve America's quite serious energy challenges.

George W. Bush

George W. Bush, in a recent Saturday radio address, provided a clear example of how truthiness, rather than truth, reigns in the efforts to promote oil exploration and drilling in the outer continental shelf.

From that radio chat:

First, we should expand American oil production by increasing access to offshore exploration on the outer continental shelf, or OCS. Experts believe that the OCS that is currently off limits could produce enough oil to match America's current production for almost 10 years.
Wow. The OCS would match today's U.S. oil production for almost 10 years? Want lower oil prices? Want energy independence? The answer is clear: Drill the OCS, now! That is, clear until you examine what the experts actually are saying.
A report last year by the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration said that "access to the Pacific, Atlantic and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030. Leasing would begin no sooner than 2012, and production would not be expected to start before 2017.
Washington Post, July 13, 2008
Bush stated, quite bluntly, that opening up the OCS could match today's total U.S. oil production for a decade. He failed to mention that this would have minimal, if any impact, on America's energy posture for decades to come. The administration's own experts, who are far from enemies of the oil industry and oil production, state that this move would not begin to produce oil until a decade from now and that it would "not have a significant impact on domestic ... production ... before 2030." And, in 2030, that drilling would give us only a 3 percent increase over the 5.1 million or so barrels we currently produce. The EIA estimates that additional offshore drilling would add 200,000 barrels to the 2030 production. To place this into context, U.S. consumption is about 21 million barrels per day. Thus, the entire Republican effort to open up offshore drilling is about providing 1 percent of today's consumption levels, 22 years from now. Or, if you were to go and conceive a child right this second, you'd save a few cents per gallon and realize a minuscule savings at the pump when you drive down to see that child graduate from college.

Mitch McConnell

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been similarly disingenuous in his claims -- stated with authority but ungrounded in fact. In mid-July he said, "I think people are reassured that not a drop of oil was spilled during Katrina or Rita. ... Those rigs in the Gulf, there was not a single incident of spillage that anyone reported." But the same articles notes, "the Minerals Management Service of the Interior Department reported that there were five spills, each between 1,000 and 2,000 barrels. Altogether, 125 small spills totaled 16,302 barrels ..."

Right Mitch, "not a single incident of spillage that anyone reported" as long as we don't pay attention to reporting from oil companies, drilling rigs, environmental organizations, journalists, state governments, and the U.S. government's Minerals Management Service. One has to wonder whether he'd notice oil in the Mississippi River.

FYI, McConnell isn't alone, as a raft of Republicans and Republican talking heads have made the same or similar comments. As has become the norm, the "message" is more important than truth. Repeat it loud enough and long enough and frequently enough, and it becomes the truth. No?

John "McSame" McCain

John McCain has been similarly disingenuous. For example, he has stated, after flip-flopping on his long-held principled opposition to coastal drilling on his long-held principled opposition to coastal drilling (a flip-flop that, of course, had nothing to do with the more than $1 million he received and the more than $4 million the RNC have received from the oil industry), "we have untapped oil reserves of at least 21 billion barrels in the United States." Actually, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, we have "undiscovered conventionally recoverable resources" of 17.8 million barrels. A simple way to explain it: Reserves are birds in the hand -- proven supplies -- and resources are birds in the bush. They represent interesting possibilities, but what's actually down under the ground (and sea) is still uncertain. But that's just detail. How about this element of McCain's claims?
I'll call for lifting the federal moratorium for states that choose to permit exploration. I think that this and perhaps providing additional incentives for states to permit exploration off their coasts would be very helpful in the short term in resolving our energy crisis.
We already know that the impact on lowering prices, if there is any, will not come until the 2020s. What does "short term" mean for John McCain? Is this lying or simply a total lack of understanding of energy issues? Of course, we could return to what McCain said just two months ago for some insight: "With those resources, which would take years to develop, you would only postpone or temporarily relieve our dependency on fossil fuels." Perhaps it would be worthwhile to check McCain's drilling advertisement. Politically convenient flip-flopping or forgetfulness, you decide.

When it comes to the support for extending drilling, the litany of Republicans echoing (or embellishing, like spreading the lie that China is drilling for oil off Florida or that drilling will drop oil prices to $2 gallon) these half- or non-truths could go on for pages. The line has been set and is being repeated ad nauseum.

The repetition continues even as legendary oilman and massive Republican Party contributor T. Boone Pickens has said: "I've been an oilman all my life. But this is one emergency that we can't drill our way out of."

In the Face of Truthiness, Confusion Reigns

The Democratic Party seems to have been caught off guard by the Republicans' ability to tap into Americans' pain at the pump. And, in what is often seen as a core Democratic approach to problems, a cacophony of different responses are on the table. In the face of the clear, if disingenuous "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less Several Decades From Now" campaign and some polling suggesting public support for more drilling, the Democrats' responses have been fractured and all over the map.

In a long tradition of responding to powerful emotional arguments with facts and wonky policy proposals, some Democratic politicians seem intent on channeling Nancy Reagan with the mantra "Just Say No to Drilling." It's a call to solve, rather than feed, America's oil addiction. This is also a continuation of years of principled opposition to offshore drilling to protect fragile ecosystems against oil spills.

Some point to the structural limitation to oil exploration, with constrained drilling equipment making it impossible for oil companies to do anything in newly opened areas for years to come. Related to this is the "Use It or Lose It" campaign, a core (and fact-based) argument that huge tracts of land and ocean are already leased to oil companies which they have yet to explore and begin to drill, and thus, opening up new areas should not occur until already-leased areas are drilled.

Another, potentially less factually and more emotionally based, response to high gas prices is the call for "ending the Enron loophole," with an assertion that speculation is core to driving oil prices higher.

Some Democratic Party politicians, such as Tennessee Senate candidate Bruce Lunsford, seem to support a gas tax holiday as a path toward relieving consumers' pain at the pump. Others seem to believe that the Republicans have won this game politically and, no matter the reality that drilling would have little impact on America's oil supplies and no relationship to today's prices, are calling for political surrender to authorize drilling and get it off the agenda prior to the election. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, echoed by an Americans United for Change campaign, is pushing to "Free Our Oil!" Pelosi is calling for an opening of the taps of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), releasing roughly 10 percent of the reserve per year. This amount, interestingly, would put on the market about as much oil per day, today, as opening new areas for drilling might provide 20 years in the future.

None of these efforts seem to match the clarity of Newt Gingrich's call to Drill Now! Drill Here! Pay Less! Albeit a mirage, this offers a simple and direct answer to calls for lower gas prices and U.S. energy independence. While the Republican Party provides the fantasy of solution, the Democratic Party offers confusion.

Seeking a holistic response

Let us be clear. Efforts to increase (actually, struggle to maintain) America's oil production can be part of a holistic energy package. But, to be clear, it can be only part: Far more critical is to use efficiency to produce negagallons (not-used oil) to help provide some breathing space to move as much of America's transportation off oil. Efforts and discussion to explore additional oil production should be part of a larger discussion. And, they should be grounded in truth.

If the discussion is just about gas prices, Americans are caught in a very dangerous framing of the political debate. Discussing "speculators," serving up drilling as some form of solution, offering a "gas tax holiday," and even calls to "Free Our Oil" suggest that, somehow, gasoline prices will be lower in the future. "Lowering" gas prices gets people thinking back to the days of cheaper energy unit costs. We need people, the nation, thinking about energy as a system, as a "cost to own" rather than "cost to buy." We (the nation) should foster up-front investment that will lower total "cost to own" by reducing wasteful use of polluting energy. While potentially difficult in a 30-second advertisement or that dreaded robocall, no message should foster thinking that we can go back to days of cheaper gasoline. Simple fact: Over the long term (and likely the short term), it isn't going to happen.

When challenging the confusion of the Democratic Party message, someone asked me what I would say if, hypothetically, I were on TV today as a representative of the Democratic Party and the interviewer asked, "What can the Dems do right now to bring down costs, without sacrificing their long-term message of changing the way we think about oil? Or, given our foreign policy and the world as it is today, is $4, $5, $6 per gallon just the new reality that we simply must accept? What is the Democratic Party doing in Congress to help lower oil/gas costs for Americans who are hurting? What's your answer?"

What Might I Want to Say?

The Democratic Party is looking for solution paths that will help people in the near term while setting the nation on a path for a prosperous and climate-friendly future.

About today's gasoline prices, the Democratic Party could:

  • Fight to open up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. At 200,000 barrels per day, this would provide $25 million-plus per day in revenue.

  • Use 100 percent of those revenues to support new initiatives for both the short and long term.

  • Energy efficiency and renewable energy programs in homes and buildings, specifically additional targeting of places that use home heating oil, to relieve pressure on oil supplies in winter months.

  • Fight for programs to foster greater fuel efficiency in America's cars and trucks.

  • Public education campaign about fuel efficiency and driving habits. These provide the potential for several million negagallons, per day, through automobile fuel efficiency.

  • Tax credit/support to have 100 percent of America's gas stations provide free air pressure (under-pressured tires cost about 3.5 percent lost of gasoline across America's car fleet).

  • Tax credits toward purchase of systems proven to help improve fuel efficiency for both commercial users and individuals. These include things such as auxiliary power units, enabling trucks to be shut down when stopped rather than using the engine to cool refrigerated units, and mileage-per-gallon feedback systems that plug into existing (post-1996) cars to help improve mileage through real-time information about gasoline usage.

  • Create incentives for the taxi cab fleet purchase of hybrid cars.

  • Initiatives to help reduce driving requirements and ease driving, both of which will reduce gasoline use.

  • Support for compressed, flexible and telecommuting work schedules. A worker on a 9/80 drives to the job 10 percent less than a person on a standard schedule. Flexible scheduling enables people to travel outside rush hours, saving time and gasoline. A telecommuter might reduce work-related driving by 100 percent. As a start, 100 percent of Democratic Party offices on Capital Hill are going to strive to reduce their office's daily commuting footprint by 10 percent, with an additional 10 percent on flexible hours putting their travel outside traditional rush hour periods.

  • Resources for improving traffic management throughout America to help reduce fuel demands.

Over the mid- and long term:

  • Support electrification of America's rail system. This would, before 2020, eliminate 250,000 barrels of oil used by trains and provide capacity for the rail system to carry more cargo -- potentially saving millions of barrels per day. Note that drilling the outer continental shelf might add 250,000 barrels per day in supply by 2030, a decade later than rail's impact.

  • Support movement of American's trucks, buses and cars off gasoline.

  • $50 million per year for plug-in hybrid electric school buses, starting immediately.

  • Support American manufacture of high-efficiency vehicles and engine systems moving transportation to electrification.

  • Mandate that federal fleet vehicle purchases be a minimum of 5 percent PHEV/EV starting in 2010, with a 5 percent increase each year that follows.

  • Tax credits for individuals and business for purchase of EVs and PHEVs. The tax credit increases as the "all electric" driving distance increases.

  • Funding of a Smart Grid, with V2G (vehicle to grid) research and development, which will enable this transportation electricity to come from the grid more efficiently and enable greater penetration of renewable power.

  • Mandate that 100 percent of vehicles (of all types) provide real-time and longer-term feedback to driver as to fuel efficiency.

Quite simply, it is time to get energy smart as individuals, communities and the nation.

We must have plans that help address quite real near-term challenges of high gasoline prices while setting a path to real solutions for tomorrow.

Such a holistic response, however, might seem beyond the perennial confusion and fragmentation of the Democratic Party. (There does, however, seem to be direction emerging from the confusion as in the just-released House Democratic Renewable Direction Energy Plan, which provides some holistic elements.) And, such a holistic and meaningful response seems impossible for the Republican Party in face of its continued rejection of reality-based policy and embrace of the fossil-fuel industry.

Rather than a serious discussion of America's energy challenges with real options for real solutions, Americans are faced with a conundrum: When it comes to drilling, Confused or Dishonest, the choice is yours.

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