Neil Abercrcombie, the Hawaii Democrat and former college professor who represents Waikiki Beach and its environs in the U.S. House of Representatives, took to the floor June 29 to liken some Americans to the Taliban.
The targets of Abercrombie's ire were not officials at the National Security Agency conducting warrantless wiretaps of suspected terrorists. Nor were they the military personnel running the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.
No, Abercrombie, who advocates expanded offshore oil and gas drilling because he believes rising energy prices are killing American jobs in agriculture and manufacturing, directed his anger at anti-drillling environmentalists.
"We are losing our manufacturing base," said Abercrombie. "We are losing our ability to farm, while rich, elite people in this country that support some of these environmental Taliban organizations are out there with the propaganda that is trying to say that some of us that are trying to get to energy independence are the ones that are causing the difficulty.
"Well, let me tell you something," he said. "We are not going to back off on this."
With a tight international oil market and escalating turmoil in the Middle East driving the price of crude toward $80 a barrel -- and with gasoline prices in the United States surging past $3 per gallon -- many Americans will be surprised to learn that current federal law prohibits tapping into massive pools of oil that now sit idly off our shores.
In 1990, the senior President Bush issued an executive order imposing a 10-year ban on new offshore oil and gas drilling leases. In 1998, President Clinton extended that ban until 2012. Language has also been inserted into each year's Interior Department appropriation enforcing the moratorium.
The moratorium has been maintained with broad support from members of Congress who represent certain coastal states, especially Florida and California, where environmentalists adamantly oppose new offshore drilling.But the moratorium puts an astounding amount of domestic oil off limits to development -- thus artificially inflating the cost of gasoline for American families, while keeping the country more dependent on foreign oil than necessary.
In the energy bill approved last year, Congress mandated that the Interior Department's Mineral Management Service conduct an inventory of oil resources on the Outer Continental Shelf, an area extending 200 miles from our coastline over which the United States has exclusive economic rights.
In February, MMS estimated that the OCS harbors 85.8 billion barrels of undiscovered crude. Given that we imported 3.67 billion barrels of crude in 2005, according to the Energy Information Administration, that means the undiscovered offshore oil equals about 23 years' worth of imported crude at current consumption levels.
In June, the House voted 232-187, to approve a bill engineered by Resources Chairman Richard Pombo, R.-Calif., and co-sponsored by Abercrombie that would open the spigots on at least some of this oil. Forty Democrats supported it.
Under current law, state governments control the first three miles off shore and the federal government controls from three to 200 miles. When the federal government issues an oil lease for territory more than three miles from shore, it collects a royalty on the oil produced from the lease, but gives no share to the state.
Pombo and Abercrombie's Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act would change this. It would ban all new oil and gas drilling leases out to 50 miles, unless a state specifically passed a law to allow them. It would allow new leases between 50 and 100 miles, unless a state specifically passed a law to forbid them. And it would allow new leases beyond 100 miles, and give sole authority over that remote region to the federal government.
Voters in some states might support drilling for oil off their shores because they think it's a good way to create jobs, ease dependence on foreign oil and keep gas prices down. Others might support it for the royalty money.
In states where environmentalists hold the balance of power, they can permanently ban drilling within 100 miles of shore.
But environmentalists in places like California, Florida, New York and Massachusetts would no longer be able to tell Americans in places such as Virginia, Georgia and Alaska that they could not drill oil off their shores and sell it in places such as Indiana and Tennessee -- and thus compete on an equal basis with the royal families of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
President Bush and Republican Senate leaders should join with Abercrombie and Pombo to make this bill law -- before the next Middle East crisis makes gasoline $4 per gallon.