Critical Thinking on Energy

Charles Krauthammer

6/20/2008 12:01:00 AM - Charles Krauthammer

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.

Our environmental imperialism does not just redistribute pollution to people who can least afford it. It generally increases the total overall damage because oil extraction in the wealthier and more technologically advanced U.S. is far more environmentally sensitive.

McCain's unwillingness to include ANWR lacks even political logic. His policy on offshore drilling is a flip-flop from his past positions. Perfectly justified, but a reconsideration nonetheless. If you are going to take the hit for flip-flopping and for offending environmentalists, why go halfway?

The oil crisis handed McCain an unexpected and singularly effective campaign issue. A majority of Americans now favor drilling in the Arctic and offshore. Democrats stand in the way of increased production just as they did 13 years ago when President Clinton vetoed drilling in ANWR. Domestic oil production would be about 20 percent higher today if the Republican Congress had been allowed to prevail.

As expected and right on cue, Barack Obama reflexively attacked McCain. "His decision to completely change his position" to one that would please the oil industry is "the same Washington politics that has prevented us from achieving energy independence for decades." One can only marvel at Obama's audacity in characterizing McCain's proposal to change our policy as "old politics," while the candidate of "change" adheres rigidly to the no-drilling status quo.

McCain is a lot of things, but the man who opposed ethanol in Iowa -- as Obama shamelessly endorsed the most abysmally stupid of our energy policies -- is no patsy of the energy producers. Americans know that increased production is needed to complement reduced consumption as the only way to get us out from oil shocks, high prices and national security blackmail.

Alas, McCain's proposed reform is only partial. Still better than Obama, however, who refuses to deviate from liberal orthodoxy. But that is the story of his campaign, is it not?