August 10, 2008
Oil Debate Mired in ’70s Tech
By Deroy Murdock Scripps Howard News Service
NEW YORK -- To plan a long and challenging journey, would you reject Mapquest and GPS and only consult an atlas from the 1970s? Unlikely. But to pinpoint America's offshore oil deposits, congressional Democrats, starting with Sen. Barack Obama, love disco- era maps. Despite his conditional, latter-day support for limited offshore drilling, Obama is the sole sponsor of legislation that would block geological research to locate offshore oil.
Federal officials currently employ estimates based primarily on two-dimensional maps that oil-industry surveyors produced in the 1970s and furnished to the Interior Department. Since 1981, congressional appropriations amendments effectively have barred Interior from financing or permitting survey expeditions.
In 2005, Congress mandated new, quintennial inventories, then gave Interior six months and $0 to assess how much oil and natural gas undergird the 1.76 billion-acre outer continental shelf -- a laughably impossible task.
"They couldn't even board a research vessel," explains a congressional staffer who studies these issues. Interior's "paper inventory," the aide adds, "examined Canadian and West African coastal data, imagined where those sediments pooled before the continental drift, then extrapolated to guesstimate what's off our Atlantic coast today."
The resulting document states: "Resource estimates are highly dependent on the current knowledge base, which has not been updated in 20 to 40 years for areas under congressional moratorium ... " Translation: "We have no idea what's really out there."
Obama's "Oil SENSE Act" would repeal the 2005 Energy Policy Act's authorization of these inventories. S.115 would leave decisionmakers with Carter administration maps drawn with pre-PC technology. This is like engineering a space shuttle mission with slide rules.
Obama's bill would prohibit expanded use of 3-D seismic techniques that locate and measure underwater oil deposits. In October 1999, President Clinton's Energy Department evaluated the environmental quality of 1970s' 2-D equipment against last decade's 3-D technology. With the latter, Energy concluded, "Overall impacts of exploration and production are reduced because fewer wells are required to develop the same amount of reserves." In 1970, 17 percent of offshore wells struck oil. By 1997, that figure was 48 percent.
Contemporary 4-D surveying adds the dimension of time. Satellites help find and quantify subsea deposits, track their flows and predict their next steps. Some 70 percent of 4-D wells hit oil.
Obama's "Don't ask, don't drill" policy spurns these marvels and embraces outdated information gathered with obsolete instruments. This is the audacity of ignorance.
Adults should not make decisions in willful oblivion. Democrats like Obama prefer not to know what riches rest off America's coasts. They resemble kindergartners who cover their ears and hum loudly to muffle their parents' unwelcome words.
Meanwhile, Americans struggle to fuel planes, trains and automobiles. Despite this national nightmare, congressional Democrats fled on a five-week summer vacation, rather than vote on Republican amendments to extend offshore drilling. Democrats chose suntan oil over oil production.
Instead of voting on Republican energy proposals, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D- Calif., dispatched her colleagues to build sand castles. Nevertheless, GOP representatives unofficially are pleading their case to tourists inside the House chamber.
Across the Capitol, as Human Events' Jed Babbin observed, Senate Democrats favored doubling gasoline prices to considering further fuel development. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, asked to debate pro-energy legislation. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., representing majority Democrats, objected. And if gasoline reached $5 per gallon? Salazar said no. $7.50? McConnell wondered. Salazar: Not yet. McConnell continued, "I would renew my request with the modification that the trigger be $10 a gallon at the pump." Salazar replied: "I object."
Meanwhile, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., recently complained, "It's Christmas in July" as he denounced oil-industry earnings, even though that sector's 8.3 percent margin for 2007 lagged the chemical and electronics industries' 12.7 and 14.5 percent respective returns. "Big oil is plowing these profits into stock buybacks instead of increasing production," Schumer huffed.
Naturally, it's hard for Big Oil to generate more petroleum when they cannot open new refineries, develop the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, broaden offshore production, nor even modernize their underwater maps. This is like screaming at Mom because dinner is late -- while blocking the kitchen door.
For all their supposed sophistication, Obama, Pelosi, Salazar, Schumer and their caucus-mates are anti-intellectual eco-Luddites. Democratic bullheadedness deserves the republic's scorn.
Deroy Murdock is a columnist with Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. E-mail: [email protected]
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