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A Crude October Surprise

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Republicans may be planning a crude surprise for Democrats this October. I mean crude in the sense that it will involve unrefined petroleum.

Since the House recessed earlier this month, Republicans have been demanding that Speaker Nancy Pelosi call it back into special session to vote on whether to allow new offshore oil-drilling.

The Republicans know Pelosi won't do that. So, what do they really want?

Let's start with some sense of the oil resources America could develop if Congress would allow it.

In 2006, the Interior Department estimated that about 85.9 billion barrels of "undiscovered technically recoverable" oil sits offshore on the Outer Continental Shelf within U.S. territory.

In 2007, the Energy Department's "Task Force on Strategic Unconventional Fuels" reported that: "America's oil shale resource exceeds 2 trillion barrels, including about 1.5 trillion barrels of oil equivalent in high quality shales concentrated in the Green River Formation in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. ... Depending on technology and economics, as much as 800 billion barrels of oil equivalent could be recoverable from oil shale resources yielding (more than) 25 gallons per ton."

This combined 885.9 billion barrels of recoverable oil that the government estimates lies undeveloped within U.S. territory is almost three and a half times as much as the 260 billion barrels in proven oil reserves that lie under Saudi territory.

America is an oil-rich country.

Since 1982, however, each year's Interior appropriation has included language forbidding Interior from selling oil-drilling leases in about 85 percent of the acreage comprising the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf. (In July, President Bush lifted an executive order -- originally imposed by his father -- that essentially duplicated this congressional moratorium.)

Since this fiscal year, the Interior appropriation has also included a moratorium, sponsored by Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., that forbids Interior from issuing final regulations governing the sale of leases to develop oil shale lands. This effectively stops leases from being sold.

Because these moratoria are part of an appropriations bill that runs for only one fiscal year, they also run for one year. If not renewed by Sept. 30, they expire.

Unless Congress enacts a new law banning offshore leases and oil-shale leases, Interior can legally start selling these leases on Oct. 1.

This fact was not lost on House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., when I interviewed him on Aug. 7. I asked him if President Bush should veto any bill that includes a moratorium.

"My view is that the president should just take the position right now that these moratoriums will end on September the 30th and the Democrats have to be responsible for putting them back in," said Blunt.

"Well, the Democrats wouldn't be responsible, congressman," I said. "With all due respect, President Bush would have to sign the moratorium into law for it to exist."

"And I don't think he should do that," said Blunt.

"So, if a bill passes Congress that has that moratorium, your belief is President Bush, your advice to him is: Mr. President, veto that bill?" I asked.

"That's right," said Blunt. "And my advice to him today would be to start the process up right now for what we do on Oct. 1 when this moratorium is ended and move forward assuming that there will be no moratorium after September the 30th."

"You would tell him to instruct those people in the Interior Department, who are responsible for administering these leases for the offshore oil and the shale oil, to begin the process of getting ready so that on Oct. 1 he can sell a lease?" I asked.

"I would," said Blunt.

"And you would go ahead and sell those leases? You would say: 'Let's do it. Let's move ahead'?" I asked.

"Well, after Oct. 1 when there is no moratorium," said Blunt. "The studies are there. The resource is there. We know you can safely go after it. The American people are hurting. We need to do whatever is necessary."

The Democrats would likely attempt to pre-empt such a strategy by using the traditional method Congress uses for ramming through legislation that cannot stand on its own: They will roll almost all fiscal 2009 appropriations into one monstrous continuing resolution and attach to that monstrosity the offshore oil and shale oil moratoria.

They will say to President Bush: If you want to develop U.S. oil resources, you must first shut down most of the U.S. government. You must be willing to face a massive national controversy over oil drilling and government spending.

President Bush might balk at that. For conservatives, it's a two-fer.

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