Keep People Warm, Fed and Working

Posted December 5, 2008 at 11:48am

Not long ago, a woman in Fort Worth, Texas, sent this question to a New York Times Magazine column called the Ethicist: “Natural-gas companies in our area can drill in one spot and extract gas more than a mile away by using ‘horizontal’ drilling. These companies offered to lease homeowners’ mineral rights — about $4,000 for my partner and me. For environmental reasons, we strongly oppose this drilling. … What should we do?”

The Ethicist recognized the mass appeal of free money but explained that signing up just because her neighbors did would be like “shooting a guy in an orgy of rioting — same deal.” Better to find some local environmentalists and mount a resistance to the whole project, he said.

I’m not sure how the Texas lady and the Ethicist from New York heat their homes — not with natural gas, I’d guess — but when leasing mineral rights is routinely equated to “an orgy of rioting,” you get an idea of why we’re all paying so much for fuel. Gas used to be clean and cheap. It’s clean still, but now profoundly politically incorrect.

I have a different view. I hope we find enough natural gas under Fort Worth to warm houses and cook meals for people who live on top of the Barnett shale there, and thousands more, too. I also hope homeowners, drillers and investors all profit from the effort. (I’m an investor, and I sure hope that I do.)

This isn’t really about the Barnett shale, though. It’s about keeping people warm, employed and able to get to their jobs in the morning by using the resources we have while we’re developing the resources we want. Two-thirds of 10,747 voters surveyed in news media exit polls during the election who picked Barack Obama to be our next leader said they favored drilling for oil in U.S. waters, so I’m hardly alone.

Seventy dollars for the 42 gallons that constitute a barrel of oil — just to pick one recent price — seemed low, especially compared with the $140 that spawned $4 gasoline just a few months ago. But even at $70, the price is nearly quadruple the spot price on the day back in 1995 when President Bill Clinton vetoed exploration in Alaska. If he had not, it’s reasonable to posit that energy prices would not have taken us on a 13-year roller-coaster ride.

That ride seems unlikely to end soon because the Democrats who will control the White House and Congress next year say renewable energy is the only ticket to security. Some even contend that until we are free of our own oil and gas, we cannot achieve self-reliance. That sounds less like energy policy to me than advice from a swami, and what they choose to ignore is America’s vast and largely untapped supplies in Alaska and the Outer Continental Shelf.

Both the executive and the Congressional moratoriums on OCS exploration have been lifted. The worst thing Obama could do would be to reinstate the ban. The Department of the Interior estimates the OCS holds undiscovered, technically recoverable resources to the tune of 76.47 trillion cubic feet of gas and 17.84 billion barrels of oil.

Similarly, by exploring just 2,000 surface acres that amount to less than half of 1 percent of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we could recover 10.4 billion barrels of oil, more than twice the proven oil reserves in all of Texas. The Energy Information Administration estimates that ANWR would provide a million barrels per day for 30 years, effectively displacing 30 years worth of imports from hostile countries such as Venezuela. Exploration of ANWR, according to the National Defense Council Foundation, also could create as many as a million new jobs for Americans.

I also think we should develop American oil shale. The Department of Energy puts total domestic oil shale reserves at more than 2 trillion barrels. It isn’t a short-term project, but the Task Force on Strategic Unconventional Fuels estimated that aggressive oil shale development could create at least 20,000 new jobs by 2035.

Government efficiency in administering energy policy would help, too. Here’s an idea: Establish a federal permit coordinator appointed by Obama whose job is to coordinate the permitting schedules on public lands and establish the fastest schedule for processing applications so that real environmental protections are preserved while red-tape delays are not. The schedule should be binding so that agencies cannot sit on the paperwork in order to placate persistent critics and special interests.

Finally, we need to promote nuclear power. At least 30 applications have been submitted to build new nuclear plants in the United States. These plants will provide clean, reliable energy, and a 2004 study estimated that building 33 to 41 new plants by 2024 would create 38,000 jobs.

Yet instead of the jobs, economic growth and personal opportunity that would come from a comprehensive, “all-of-the-above” energy policy that mixes research, promising renewables and proven resources, we can expect the nation’s highest energy/environmental priority next year to be a cap-and-trade system. It isn’t even intended to cut pollution or increase energy affordability, but to reduce the level of a naturally occurring gas — carbon dioxide.

That idea failed in Europe during good times, so I wonder how anyone is going to sell it to the American public after it becomes clear that cap-and-trade means capping jobs and trading away a hunk of our already declining prosperity.

I have no illusions about convincing either environmental radicals or anybody who works at the New York Times that turning off conventional energy supplies would precipitate an economic catastrophe, but I hope the next president and the expanding Democratic majorities in the House and Senate find some way to use the energy we’ve got while working on the energy we want.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) is ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.