U.S. Needs New Approach to Energy Security

Jun 25, 2008 Issues: Energy

Gas prices are too high. Family budgets are squeezed, and business bottom lines are hurt. People are right to demand answers and action.

Some people say commodity traders and speculators are bidding up the price of oil. Others fault the plunging value of the U.S. dollar, the obscene profits of the oil industry, surging demand for oil in China and India, and rising geopolitical tensions in the Middle East. All of these factors contribute to the pain consumers are experiencing at the gas pump.

Some other explanations don't cut the mustard. The executives of the nation's oil companies recently testified that the problem is that too many areas of the United States are closed to drilling. They want Congress to open more offshore areas as well as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil development. Considering that these oil companies pocketed $36 billion in profits during the first three months of 2008 alone, this explanation strikes me as a little self-serving, but it is also not supported by the facts.

Vast areas of the United States are already open to drilling. All told, there are 68 million acres of public land and offshore areas that have been leased to the oil and gas companies that are not in production. Despite this huge backlog, the energy companies continue to sit on these leases.

Before opening more public lands to the oil industry, is it too much to ask that they invest some of their record profits to develop the leases they already own?

The House of Representatives will soon debate a bill to require energy companies to demonstrate that they are diligently developing the leases they already hold, or return the leases to the federal government. If we are serious about boosting U.S. energy output, Congress should pass this bill without delay.

Of course, there are areas where we shouldn't drill. A few years ago, some people were calling on Michigan to open the Great Lakes to oil drilling. This idea was rejected. In Alaska, the ANWR is the only portion of the North Slope that is protected from oil exploration and drilling. Are we ready to turn the Great Lakes and the Arctic Refuge over to the oil companies just on the possibility that they might find a few months' worth of oil there?

Another area of dispute is the role that biofuels will play in our nation's energy mix. Biofuels have come under criticism recently because of the rise in food prices. In fact, most of the run-up in food prices is due to other factors, especially soaring global demand for grain, poor weather and restrictive agricultural policies around the world.

The United States cannot afford to close the door on biofuels. The key is to develop the next generation of biofuels, particularly cellulosic ethanol, which is made from nonfood plants like switchgrass, wood chips and agricultural waste.

The first cellulosic ethanol plants are just coming online, but cellulosic ethanol is still more expensive than corn ethanol. Congress recently voted to shift some federal support from corn ethanol to spur the development of advanced biofuels.

There isn't a silver bullet to bolster U.S. energy security, so we need a comprehensive energy strategy that includes energy leasing reform, biofuels, increased efficiency and investment in new technologies. The alternative is to continue the Bush administration's approach of showering energy companies with tax breaks, subsidies, royalty holidays and open access to America's public lands. It's time for a new approach.