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FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR

Obama’s Energy Ideas: Running on Empty

If generals always fight the last war, do politicians always try to solve the last energy crisis?

In his Wednesday address at Georgetown University, President Obama took another stab at elucidating his muddled energy policy:

It was just three years ago that gas prices topped $4 a gallon. I remember because I was in the middle of a presidential campaign. Working folks certainly remember because it hit a lot of people pretty hard. And because we were at the height of political season, you had all kinds of slogans and gimmicks and outraged politicians — they were waving their three-point plans for $2 a gallon gas. You remember that — “drill, baby, drill” — and we were going through all that. And none of it was really going to do anything to solve the problem.

The President has a keen eye for a gimmicky slogan. Remember “Hope and Change”? Or “Yes, We Can?” Or the latest monument to vapidity, “Winning the Future”? If there were a Hall of Fame for Substance-Free Slogans, Barack Obama would be its Babe Ruth. If there were an Empty Rhetoric Olympics, Obama would take the gold medal. If there were a Nobel Prize for … oh, wait, he already won that one.

But the Admisistration’s retort to “drill, baby, drill” is “We can’t drill our way out of an energy crisis.”

That slogan is emptyheaded, maybe, but not empty. Unfortunately, it’s Federal policy. And it’s demonstrably wrong.

Back in Jimmy Carter’s day, the best estimate of the ultimate size of our nation’s natural gas resource was just over 1,000 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of gas. We had produced most of that already. With the “assistance” of an influential coal lobby, Congress became so alarmed about natural gas supply that they outlawed new natural gas-fired generating plants.

Fast forward to 2011. We’ve already produced more gas than anyone in 1980 thought existed. And we’ve increased our resource estimate to over 2,000 TCF remaining. That’s nearly a 100-year supply at current rates of consumption. (It also says something instructive about the nature of these sorts of estimates: they’re statistical guesses, and should be treated as such, not as a hard inventory. But that’s the topic of another diary.)

Daniel Yergin is chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power.” In a weekend op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Yergin looks at the history and the consequences of the shale gas boom, which proves that we can drill our way out of an energy crisis. Shale gas is a big reason for our reversal of fortune in natural gas. (A Google search on “site:wsj.com stepping on the gas” will provide a readable copy if registration is an issue.)

As late as 2000, shale gas was just 1% of American natural-gas supplies. Today, it is about 25% and could rise to 50% within two decades. Estimates of the entire natural-gas resource base, taking shale gas into account, are now as high as 2,500 trillion cubic feet, with a further 500 trillion cubic feet in Canada. That amounts to a more than 100-year supply of natural gas, which is used for everything from home heating and cooking to electric generation, industrial processes and petrochemical feedstocks. …

[As a reault of technical advances in drilling and extraction,] Gas output rose dramatically, and the anticipated shortfall turned into a large surplus. As the volume rose, the inevitable happened—prices came down. Substantially. Today, natural-gas prices are less than half of what they were just three years ago. [In fact, a BTU in natural gas form is currently about a quarter of the same energy amount of oil. - Ed.]

[emphasis added]

“Drill, baby, drill” is not a gimmick or a mere slogan, it encapsulates a strategy, one that has been shown to work. Its elements:

  • End the permitorium.
  • Recommence offshore lease sales.
  • End the moratorium on leasing in the Eastern Gulf, the Atlantic, the Pacific, and offshore Alaska.
  • Open ANWR to leasing.
  • Open the Mountain West to leasing.
  • Tell the EPA, “Thanks, but we’re going to let the grownups handle this one.”
  • Shelve plans to increase taxes on domestic producers.

Beyond that, though, “Drill, baby, drill” is the lifeblood of my community and of a half-dozen states in the Gulf South. “Drill, baby, drill” means jobs — just ask North Dakota, with an unemployment rate near 3%.

If the generals can be accused of always “fighting the last war”, politicians are guilty of fighting the last energy crisis. This potential solution is home-grown, not government-centric. Washington-based policy makers struggle with the idea that a game-changing idea might be hatched in Ft. Worth, Shreveport or Bismarck. But that’s the way innovation happens in the oil patch. “We can’t drill our way out of this energy crisis” is wrongheaded thinking that fails to take new, proven technology into account. It’s so … 1991.

Cross-posted at VladEnBlog.

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