WASHINGTON -- Gas is $4 a gallon. Oil is $135 a barrel and rising. We import two-thirds of our oil, sending hundreds of billions of dollars to the likes of Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. And yet we voluntarily prohibit ourselves from even exploring huge domestic reserves of petroleum and natural gas.
At a time when U.S. crude oil production has fallen 40 percent in the last 25 years, 75 billion barrels of oil have been declared off-limits, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That would be enough to replace every barrel of non-North American imports (oil trade with Canada and Mexico is a net economic and national security plus) for 22 years.
That's nearly a quarter-century of energy independence. The situation is absurd. To which John McCain is responding with a partial fix: Lift the federal ban on Outer Continental Shelf drilling, where a fifth of the off-limits stuff lies.
This is a change for McCain, but circumstances have changed. When the moratorium was imposed in 1982, gasoline was $1.20 and oil was $30 a barrel. Since the moratorium was instituted, we've had two wars in the Middle East, and in between a decade of garrisoning troops in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE to preserve the peace and keep untold oil riches out of the hands of the most malevolent of our enemies.
Technological conditions have changed as well. We now are able to drill with far more precision and environmental care than a quarter-century ago. We have thousands of rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, yet not even hurricanes Katrina and Rita resulted in spills of any significance.
McCain's problem is that he's only able to go halfway on energy production because he has locked himself into opposition to the other obvious source of domestic oil -- the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
His fastidiousness on this is inexplicable. "I believe that ANWR is a pristine area," he explains. Is it more pristine than the ocean, where he now wants to drill? More pristine than the Arabian Desert from which we daily beg the Saudi princes to pump more oil?
The entire Arctic refuge is one-third the size of the United Kingdom (which includes Scotland and Wales). The drilling site would be one-seventh the size of Manhattan Island. The footprint is tiny. Moreover, forbidding drilling there does not prevent despoliation. It merely exports it. The crude oil we're not getting from the Arctic we import instead from places like the Niger Delta, where millions live and where the resulting pollution and oil spillages poison the lives of many of the world's most wretchedly poor.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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