INSIGHT: Four presidents, Congress share in Gulf spill blame

17 June 2010 16:35  [Source: ICIS news]

By Joe Kamalick

US Congress helped force drilling into deeper watersWASHINGTON (ICIS news)--Energy giant BP is rightfully held responsible for the Gulf oil spill and its awful environmental and financial consequences, but four US presidents and a thousand or so members of Congress also should share the blame.

The Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, the tragic deaths of 11 of its crew and the unfolding ecological disaster ultimately may be judged as the result of wilful, perhaps even criminal negligence.

But it was an accident - one that could have been and should have been avoided, but an accident nonetheless.

However, the short-sighted and politically expedient policies advanced by the current and three former presidents and rote-voting members of Congress were overt acts that drove US and other energy developers into the ever deeper waters of the Gulf and helped set the stage for the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

BP and other exploration and development companies were drilling in 5,000 feet of water in a precarious effort to reach energy reserves thousands of feet further below the sea floor because generations of policymakers have barred access to the abundant low-hanging fruit of oil and gas reserves that lie in shallow waters along US shores.

Beginning in 1982, Congress imposed an offshore drilling moratorium affecting 85% of federally owned outer continental shelf (OCS) regions. Every year thereafter for 27 years, members of Congress approved that drilling ban language in successive Interior Department appropriations bills.

Perhaps more often than not, most of them didn’t realise they were voting to bar domestic energy production. Still, members of Congress continued to support the obscure moratorium language when it was pointed out to them, because they wanted to avoid difficult decisions.

In 1990, President George H W Bush initiated, by executive order, a parallel ban on OCS drilling, a policy that his successor, President Bill Clinton, maintained and extended to 2012.

President George W Bush, much reviled for being “that oilman in the White House”, also maintained the OCS drilling ban. But in July 2008, as US gasoline prices climbed to $4/gal., Bush withdrew the presidential moratorium.

Later that year, with consumers (voters) hopping mad about high gasoline, diesel fuel and heating oil costs, Congress begrudgingly allowed its offshore drilling ban to expire in September.

If over the previous 28 years or so US energy companies had been allowed to access, survey and develop the considerable oil and gas resources in relative shallows off the nation’s East and West Coasts and in Alaskan onshore and offshore regions, would BP and others have been drilling in 5,000 feet of Gulf waters?

“Deep water drilling is inherently more risky and costly than shallow water drilling,” said John Hofmeister, former Shell Oil president and now chief executive of the advocacy group Citizens for Affordable Energy.

“Getting more access or more shallow water drilling, however, has been prohibited to companies by federal policy, both legislative and executive branches,” he noted.

“The government instead has leased deepwater permits, and the industry has followed the government’s lead on this, developing the technology and risk mitigation necessary to proceed,” he said. It seemed to be working well, “up until this blowout”.

Dan Kish, senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research (IER), an energy industry think tank, contends that US energy policy has been nothing less than “death by a thousand cuts” for US domestic energy production.

Kish, who worked on Capitol Hill for 25 years in both the House and Senate natural resources committees, charges that federal policymakers have consistently fired regulatory bullets into US energy interests, then reloaded and fired again, year after year.

“You always hear members of Congress complaining about our failed energy policy, and they’re right,” he said, “but for reasons other than what they think.”

“Of this nation’s offshore territory, 97% of it is not leased, and 94% of federal onshore lands remain unleased” for energy development, he points out.

The federal government owns about one-third of all US territory, he noted, with much of that in the resource-rich US West, and almost all of it closed to development.

“If you take the US offshore OCS areas plus the federally owned onshore lands and combined them, that territory is larger than all of the US dry land mass, including Alaska,” Kish said. “If it were a country by itself, if would be the third largest in the world behind Russia and Canada.”

In addition to the long-running OCS moratoria, various federal policies have barred energy development on a sliver of land in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR), or barred development of oil shale. 

Legislation now pending in Congress would effectively shut down hydraulic fracturing, a time-tested drilling technology that is critical to development of vast new shale gas resources in the US.

Kish notes that in 1995 Congress became concerned about declining US domestic energy production, but instead of opening areas that could be easily accessed and developed, the legislature in its wisdom encouraged deepwater exploration and development in the Gulf.

“When it comes to drilling on our own lands and water, we’ve been told ‘You can’t do that, you can’t do this, you can’t drill here or there’,” Kish said.

The Obama administration has played a role in inhibiting domestic energy production, withdrawing leases, delaying a new five-year offshore leasing plan, eventually barring plans by the Virginia state government to develop oil and natgas resources off its shores.

Remarkably, in his Oval Office speech to the nation on Tuesday this week, President Obama said that “part of the reason oil companies are drilling a mile beneath the surface of the ocean [is] because we’re running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water”.

Kish argues that a generation of ill-considered federal policies by both the legislative and executive branches “have pushed us into increasing dependence on foreign energy sources and into ever deeper water, instead of allowing production of our own low-risk resources”.

The nation’s energy future is certainly in deep water now.

 ($1 = €0.82)

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By: Joe Kamalick
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