Streetcar Line

Don’t Spill the Oil Bill

House should bow to Senate, for now, on offshore drilling.

By 9.20.06

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A group of House conservatives is quite literally wasting energy in trying to push hard for a perfect bill on offshore drilling at the possible expense of a good bill that could easily pass. They ought to take what they can get now, knowing that they always can come back for more in future years.

At issue are competing House and Senate bills that each would open vast new areas to offshore oil and gas drilling and share some of the resulting revenues with the states off whose shores the drilling is conducted.

There can be no doubt that more offshore drilling is needed and environmentally responsible. And there can be no doubt that the House bill is the stronger bill, because it allows far more energy fields to be opened to development (if the affected states acquiesce).

But there also can be no doubt that it is foolish in the extreme to hold out for the House bill instead of the lesser, but still substantial, bill that already has passed the Senate and that President Bush already is willing to accept.

First, let's see what the Senate bill does. Then let's look into the tactical considerations that make it a wise option for the House to accept.

The Senate bill would open a whopping 8.3 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico to energy production. Its backers cite geologists, quite believably, who say the newly opened energy fields contain some 1.26 billion barrels of oil and 5.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Gasoline from that oil, say supporters, could fill the tanks of 1.7 billion cars for a 400-mile journey each -- or, looked at another way, keep 2.7 million cars fueled for 15 years. In addition to the gasoline produced, that much oil would provide enough heating oil to heat 1.2 million homes for 15 years.

The natural gas, meanwhile, could provide heat or air conditioning for some 6 million homes for those same 15 years.

That's some serious energy. And in these days of high and wildly unstable energy costs that could be exacerbated by unrest in the Middle East and the antipathy of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, the sooner the United States begins developing this bonanza the better.

Meanwhile, for the first time ever, this legislation would allow some (37.5%) of the revenues generated to be shared with the states affected by the drilling. Inland states now get 50 percent of revenues generated by drilling on federal lands within their boundaries, but coastal states get not a cent of revenues generated by drilling in federal waters off their shores. This manifestly isn't fair, and the Senate bill would change this, at least for the new area opened for drilling.

THE ADVANTAGES HERE DON'T merely accrue to the states that would directly benefit, though. The money would be dedicated to environmental protection and restoration, or infrastructure related thereto. States like Louisiana would therefore be able to replenish their coastal wetlands and build better levees -- both of which would mitigate the damage of future hurricanes that, under disaster relief standards commonly used, would otherwise be paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

Just as in the old oil filter commercial, it's far better to pay coastal states now (with new revenue, at that, which otherwise would be available for neither the feds nor the states) for protective measures than to pay them latter by bailing them out after a storm has obliterated thousands of square miles.

Of course, there's probably not a supporter of offshore drilling who doesn't recognize these benefits of this bill. But dozens of key House conservatives are holding the Senate bill hostage in favor of a House bill that also would open areas for drilling along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. They seem to ask why settle for a fourth of a loaf when their own bill provides a whole loaf.

The problem, though, is that their loaf will grow not just stale but both hard and moldy while they wait for enough senators to let it out of the kitchen. There is just no way, with time running out in this congressional session, to convince enough senators to support the far-reaching House bill. Even worse, the White House strenuously opposes the House bill -- so even if it somehow survives the gantlet of the Senate, the bill will probably be serious veto bait.

THE TACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS MIGHT be different if the House bill enjoyed a public groundswell behind it, or if expanded offshore drilling were a new idea that might attract more support if only senators got a chance to consider it longer. But that isn't the case here: Drilling supporters have been charging the same ramparts for decades, trying and trying and trying again to get permission to expand domestic energy production and share the revenues with affected states. Senators know their positions on the issue, and know those positions well; so the odds of them suddenly shifting course in the next two weeks are about the same as the odds that the Beverly Hillbillies will produce enough "Texas Tea" to power every American automobile for the next half century.

Especially when the Senate bill would represent the first successful expansion of offshore drilling after decades of trying, it is not just misguided but downright senseless for House members not to accept it as the substantial gain that it is, all in pursuit of a politically impossible ideal.

Ronald Reagan taught that there's nothing wrong with incrementalism. Again and again, many of those who claim to be his philosophical descendants forget Reagan's lessons.

In Ronald Reagan's image, then, the House conservatives ought to vote to accept the Senate bill without a single comma changed -- and then, next year, continue their campaign to educate the Senate about the merits of careful expansion of drilling in other areas as well.

Any other course would represent fool's black gold.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.