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Keep pushing for domestic oil

Gas prices at a station in Palo Alto, Calif., and around the country are relatively low.
Gas prices at a station in Palo Alto, Calif., and around the country are relatively low.
Paul Sakuma, AP

Gasoline prices are relatively low these days. Which, in a way, is unfortunate.

The fact is, it takes extreme events for many politicians to come to their senses and support increasing domestic oil supplies. This time last summer, public outrage over $4 a gallon gas caused President George W. Bush and Congress to belatedly repeal the drilling restrictions in federally controlled waters. And now, California's severe budget crunch has induced the state to scale back similar restrictions off its coast.

The real challenge is to ensure we follow through after the perceived crisis has passed — something Washington is failing to do.

California, which for decades strictly opposed any new drilling for oil and gas in its energy-rich waters, likely wouldn't have reversed course if it didn't so badly need new revenues. The latest budget agreement allows for a new offshore oil project off Santa Barbara. Officials expect revenues as high as $1.8 billion through 2022 — an enticing prospect for a state facing bankruptcy. If successful, both economically and environmentally, this project could lead to further energy production in the Pacific.

A similar thing happened in Washington last year when long-standing federal restrictions were lifted. These restrictions applied to 85 percent of federal waters. The feds generally control everything beyond three miles from shore, and almost all of it, besides the Texas and Louisiana coast, was off-limits. These provisions were put in place in the 1980s and 1990s when oil and gasoline prices were much lower and the need for additional domestic supplies wasn't seen as dire.

Of course, circumstances have changed, and that extra oil is now sorely needed. Government studies estimate 20 billion barrels of recoverable oil in these off-limits areas — nearly 30 years of current imports from Saudi Arabia. And such preliminary numbers often prove to be on the low side.

Drilling opponents often fall back on environmental concerns. But these have been minimized with technological improvements that have a proven track record of greatly reducing the risk of spills and other adverse impacts. Any new drilling would be subject to stringent controls.

Nonetheless, our leaders in Washington were slow to change, and the restrictions remained in place until 2008. Even then, it took intense public anger over skyrocketing prices in an election year to finally undo this anti-energy policy.

But gasoline isn't $4 anymore, and the Obama administration has done a 180 on offshore drilling. The Department of the Interior, which handles energy leasing in federal waters, is doing next to nothing to actually bring any of this energy online. Its paralysis-by-analysis approach could drag things out indefinitely.

Congress is no better. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has proposed even further crackdowns on domestic drilling, both onshore and offshore. He candidly admitted: "Now is the time to do it ... and at a time when the price at the pump is relatively low compared to where it was when we heard 'drill baby drill.' "

Similarly, California's move is a great first step but far from a done deal. The state's circumstances may shift again before the first new barrel gets produced, and opportunities to kill this project abound.

But one thing may make California drilling too irresistible: Beyond merely being environmentally safe, it may well be environmentally beneficial. As it is, plenty of oil reaches the water's surface off Santa Barbara and washes up on its shores — the result of natural seepage from the sea floor. Similarly, natural gas emissions bubbling up are a significant contributor to Santa Barbara County's air pollution. Offshore energy production has been shown to reduce both, leading to significantly less water and air pollution.

"Historical data and research confirms that extraction of the oil and gas reserves in seep areas reduces the underlying reservoir pressure and thus reduces and over time eliminates the natural oil seepage," says Bruce Allen, co-founder of Stop Oil Seeps California, a nonprofit based in Santa Barbara.

This is no time to throttle back from efforts to increase domestic oil supplies. We shouldn't have to wait for states to experience $26 billion deficits — or for gasoline to hit $4 a gallon again.

Ben Lieberman is a senior policy analyst in the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.