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Cut the red tape: Free up oil drilling in Alaska


By James A. Baker III

After months of oil rigs sitting idle in the Gulf of Mexico, when some producers left to drill in foreign waters, vital energy production there is finally resuming. Once again, federal regulators are approving necessary permits there - a good sign for the U.S. economy, American jobs and energy security.

But even more domestic offshore drilling will be required if our country is to increase its stable and secure energy. One reasonable place to accomplish that goal lies beneath the waters off of Alaska's northern shores. According to government estimates, that area holds approximately 27 billion barrels of oil, more than the individual petroleum resources of all but eight countries. It also contains 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to supply the United States for six years. With our demand for oil and natural gas expected to increase during the coming decades, we cannot afford to leave that energy untapped. Responsibly developing Alaska's immense resources has the potential to mark a new chapter in America's energy future.

Unfortunately, the Gulf of Mexico is not the only domestic energy opportunity that has languished on the back burner of federal regulators in recent months. Despite the fact that our federal government has been granting leases for exploration purpose off Alaska's shores since 2005, regulators have failed to provide the necessary permits to allow drilling there.

An effort by Shell Oil Co. is a case in point. During the past five years, Shell has been acquiring 10-year federal leases in the Beaufort Sea to the northeast of Alaska and the Chukchi Sea to the northwest. The company has spent more than $2 billion on the leases and $1.5 billion preparing a drilling program with state-of-the-art mitigation and safety measures. These plans have been transparent to stakeholders, regulators and the courts. However, federal officials continue to balk at delivering the permits necessary to begin drilling, most recently questioning the effects on air quality in the region. As the bureaucratic delays continue, this has become a test case for other energy producers wanting to drill there.

We can't count on Middle East

If one needs proof of the importance of increasing oil and natural gas production inside U.S. borders, look no further than the current instability in the Middle East. The uncertainty there caused by the Arab Spring has helped lead to a painful spike in prices at the pump. Further political clashes in that region could result in sharp drops in production followed by even higher prices. It is clear that we need to reduce our dependence on foreign crude, which now supplies more than half of our needs.

Of course, our country must do other things, as well, in order to secure reliable energy. Conservation and renewable fuels will be an important part of a solution. So, too, will ramping up the development of nuclear power plants and clean-coal technology. We simply cannot continue a business-as-usual approach to our energy needs. Diversification is key.

What's at stake for America

But let's be honest. For the foreseeable future, oil and natural gas will remain integral components of America's energy equation. It would be irresponsible to ignore that reality. So the question becomes: Where do we get that needed oil and gas? With increased development in the Arctic, we can reduce our reliance on foreign fuels by 9% for more than 30 years. That means fewer U.S. greenbacks and American jobs sent abroad, and a loss of significant revenue to the federal treasury. If our economy weakens, so too will America's standing on the world stage because our immense political and military might is largely based on our economic strength.

Now is the time to untangle the bureaucratic red tape that has restricted critical energy production off Alaska's coast. As President Obama said in his 2010 State of the Union address, putting the country in a more energy independent position will mean "making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development."

Sixteen months later, we should end the delay in making tough decisions.

James A. Baker III was the U.S. secretary of Treasury during the Reagan administration and the secretary of State during the administration of George H.W. Bush.

OP-ED appeared in USA Today previously
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