U.S. Reliance on Foreign Energy Cannot Continue

Posted March 2, 2007 at 12:07pm

At some point since I first won a seat in the House of Representatives more than 25 years ago, oil turned into a four-letter word. Any proposed legislation to expand American drilling is immediately criticized by policymakers who want everyone to believe that expanded domestic capacity will do nothing but devastate our ecosystem and increase our “addiction” to oil.

Unfortunately, the fact remains that we import about 60 percent of the oil we use from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, while about 85 percent of the energy we consume is from the burning of fossil fuels. If the goal of U.S. energy policy is to become energy independent, then we cannot skip A and B and go straight to C.

We must look at policy decisions realistically and understand that fossil fuels are going to continue to be our primary source of energy for years to come. We should blunt the spear of those who have unleashed an unmerciful attack on all forms of energy — specifically fossil fuels. This means that at least in the short term, the question is: From where do we want to get our oil? Not only have we not built a new refinery in the U.S. since 1976, but the number of refineries actually has decreased since that time. Meanwhile, the U.S. population has increased by 50 million people, dramatically increasing our demand for oil and natural gas while in turn increasing our reliance on foreign energy sources.

In order to have an open debate on energy policy with the explicit intention of promoting U.S. energy independence, we must look at research and development for both the short term and the long term. In the short term, it is in our country’s best interest to expand our drilling capacity and invest in research and development to promote the production of fossil fuels here at home. We are sending billions of dollars overseas to OPEC members for their oil, having not yet realized our abundant domestic energy supply potential.

In addition to renewables and alternatives, we need to make smart use of our domestic natural resources to meet our increasing demand for energy without having to rely on foreign sources. Technologies to efficiently produce non-carbon-based fuels must be given time to mature before they can replace fossil fuels; thus we need to continue to ascertain environmentally sound ways of exploring and drilling for oil and natural gas. According to a February 2006 report by the Department of the Interior, there are estimated to be reserves of 8.5 billion barrels of oil and 29.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Outer Continental Shelf. Another 86 billion barrels of oil and 420 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are classified as undiscovered resources. Drilling for oil and gas in the OCS has been prohibited in all offshore areas except Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico (except near Florida) since the 1980s.

In the previous Congress, I was a co-sponsor of H.R. 4761, the Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act of 2006, a bill that would have allowed states to decide whether they wanted to allow offshore drilling. While I would have preferred to see this bill signed into law, I am pleased that Congress was able to take a step toward expanding offshore drilling by including the Senate’s language from the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act in H.R. 6111. This bill mainly seeks to make available about 8.3 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico and provides revenue sharing with coastal states and the Land and Water Conservation Fund. I should make it clear that I see the language of the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act as a start to expanding OCS drilling, not an end. I am convinced that we have the technology to drill for oil and gas in an environmentally sound way, and we should allow our domestic producers the opportunity to prove it.

I am disappointed in the Bush administration’s budget recommendations to terminate the Petroleum Oil Technology and Natural Gas Technologies research and development programs and to repeal the Ultra-Deepwater and Unconventional Natural Gas and Other Petroleum Research Fund, which were included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The Ultra-Deepwater program, which I introduced several years ago, was designed to develop technologies to drill in ultra-deep areas of the Gulf of Mexico and unconventional onshore regions. The strongest supporters of the program are universities and small independent producers — not “Big Oil.” The program pays for itself through funding from royalty revenues that oil and gas companies pay to the federal government, and the Energy Information Administration estimates that it would increase domestic oil production by 850 million barrels of oil and 3.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

In light of the fact that our country currently relies on fossil fuels, it only makes sense to continue funding research and development programs that will help us access our domestic sources of oil and natural gas. This would be putting money in our economy rather than continuing to pump money overseas to countries that are less than stable. The fact is that fossil fuels are the lifeblood of our economy, and we cannot continue to talk about American energy independence while ignoring the as-yet-untapped abundant domestic supply of oil and natural gas.

In the long term, I don’t think anyone disagrees that we must decrease our demand for oil. To do so, we have to invest generously in alternative and renewable energy sources now. These investments will reduce our dependence on oil and have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; however, these technologies and the necessary infrastructure that will be required still are decades away from having a significant impact on our energy portfolio. This is why we must promote energy independence from both angles.

Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) is a member of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy and air quality.