Senate Fiddles While America Sizzles

Congress is doing no favors for its constituents by encouraging them to ignore the fast-approaching end of the fossil-fuel era

In the midst of the midsummer heat wave that scorched the eastern United States, the

Senate voted 71-25 to allow oil and gas drilling in a section of the Gulf of Mexico
now off-limits to such activity. During the news conference afterwards, the bill's
champions decided to contribute some hot air of their own to the atmosphere,
especially when they began crowing about the bill's purported effects on oil and
natural gas imports.

Holding forth in one of the many electrically cooled and illuminated rooms in the
Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist told reporters that "this bill will
substantially reduce our reliance on foreign oil and gas." But, as is usually the
case with energy legislation, the relevant numbers point to a very different outcome
than the happy ending Sen. Frist and his allies would have us believe.

The bill would release 8.3 million acres, a Maryland-sized area, from the ban on oil
and natural gas drilling currently in place for the coastal waters off the eastern
Gulf Coast states. According to The New York Times, drilling in the affected area
could yield as much as 1.2 billion barrels of oil and six trillion cubic feet of
natural gas that otherwise would have remained in situ.

To the casual reader, 1.2 billion barrels may seem like a whopping amount of oil,
but in actuality, it represents only 50 days' worth of supply. The U.S. has
already imported about twice that amount this year. A crash drilling program in this
zone could conceivably result in a maximum flow of 200,000 barrels a day, not
enough to offset the 400,000 barrels lost from the pipeline shutdowns recently
announced by British Petroleum.

Another way to look at the oil estimate is to compare it with the output from
Alaska's North Slope, the last so-called "elephant" oil complex discovered
anywhere in the United States. From 1980 to the late 1990s Prudhoe Bay and environs
yielded more than one million barrels a day. Though way past its peak, the North
Slope still accounts for about 8% of the oil extracted in the 50 states. Overall,
the amount of recoverable petroleum from Prudhoe Bay and its satellite fields should
top 13 billion barrels.

The natural gas number is scarcely more impressive. According to the Energy
Information Agency, America consumed about six trillion cubic feet of natural gas
was this year between January 1st and St. Patrick's Day. In other words, the
volume expected from these coastal waters wouldn't last through one full winter.

In piloting the coastal drilling bill to a floor vote, Sen. Frist successfully
fended off attempts by his colleagues to attach conservation measures that would
reduce fossil fuel consumption by substantially greater amounts than what would be
extracted from this section of the Gulf of Mexico. Frist's real objective, it
turns out, was to allow four Gulf Coast states--Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and
Florida—to pocket one-third of the revenues generated by oil and gas leases in
that 8.3 million acre zone. This unprecedented revenue-sharing arrangement was added
to the bill as a sop to several Deep South senators running for reelection. Should
we expect better from a body controlled by southern Republicans?

If the goal of this bill really was to bolster U.S. energy self-sufficiency, then it
certainly fails the laugh test. But the numbers tossed around by Frist and company
contain enough "truthiness," to borrow a term popularized by Comedy Central's
Steven Colbert, to pass muster with that innumerate and homework-averse gaggle of
scribes known as the Washington press corps.

There were, however, a few perceptive observers outside the Beltway who crunched the
numbers and blasted the Senate's action for the election-year charade it is. The
prize for the most trenchant analysis goes to the Baltimore Sun, which wrote that
the "nation's energy future doesn't lie in plundering seacoasts and other
precious natural resources for ever-more-meager supplies polluting fossil fuels."
Characterizing the legislation as a "great fraud," the Sun instead endorsed an
all-out campaign to reduce oil and natural gas consumption through conservation,
efficient technologies and renewable energy sources.

In advocating for a Manhattan Project-scale commitment on energy, the Sun clearly
has been listening to Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Maryland Republican and the unofficial
leader of the congressional Peak Oil Caucus, whom the newspaper describes as a
"serious thinker" on this topic.

Wrote the Sun in its concluding sentence: "Congress is doing no favors for its
constituents by encouraging them to ignore the fast-approaching end of the
fossil-fuel era." The Senate legislation must be reconciled with a decidedly more
sweeping House bill that would open the entire U.S. coastline to oil and gas
drilling. Can Congress merge a travesty with a full-blown debacle? A failure here
would do its constituents a huge favor.

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