Obama Plan to End the Moratorium on Oil Exploration

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | March 31, 2010 8:48 am

Today President Obama and Interior Secretary Salazar will announce plans to end the moratorium on oil exploration. An expanse for lease would become available from Delaware to central Florida and also include parts of the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea north of Alaska. From the NYTimes:

But while Mr. Obama has staked out middle ground on other environmental matters — supporting nuclear power, for example — the sheer breadth of the offshore drilling decision will take some of his supporters aback. And it is no sure thing that it will win support for a climate bill from undecided senators close to the oil industry, like Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, or Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana.

The Senate is expected to take up a climate bill in the next few weeks — the last chance to enact such legislation before midterm election concerns take over. Mr. Obama and his allies in the Senate have already made significant concessions on coal and nuclear power to try to win votes from Republicans and moderate Democrats. The new plan now grants one of the biggest items on the oil industry’s wish list — access to vast areas of the Outer Continental Shelf for drilling.

My take? An end to the moratorium could be devastating–not just to fisheries and marine mammals–but also to coastal states that depend on beach tourists to boost their economies. Thankfully, no wells would be permitted within 125 miles of the Florida and Alabama coasts. And there’s this as well:

Mr. Obama is also expected to announce two other initiatives to reduce oil imports, an agreement between the Pentagon and the Agriculture Department to use more biofuels in military vehicles and the purchase of thousands of hybrid vehicles for the federal motor pool.

MORE ABOUT: drilling, oil

Comments (16)

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  1. Eric the Leaf

    “OK…dozens of different possible reasons and 1000’s of opinions. I’ll start the ball rolling. Assumptions: 1) President Obama, if not completely PO aware, sees the next price spike coming during his administration. 2) President Obama is a smart guy and sees the great advantage of reminding folks (during the next gasoline price spike) that he had the foresight to sign on to the “drill here…drill now” team before it was obvious to many.

    All righty…have at it. And yes…the obvious: the change can’t have any possible meaningful effect on US oil/NG production for at least 10 to 15 years. If then.”

    Initial comment by ROCKMAN over at TheOilDrum. Tune in there for the follow-up.

  2. I am continually amazed that so many supposedly bright people continue to take the position that we should approach the use of a diminishing resource by trying to use it up as quickly as we can. I have been saying this repeatedly ever since the Republican Convention went off on the Drill baby drill mantra. At some time, we will probably have to make some of these moves, but why now, when we really do not yet have to?

    The Platform of the Green Party of the US has a chapter on Economic Sustainability. It begins with “No economic system is sustainable unless it accommodates the ecosystems on which it depends. Our current system – based on the notion of perpetual economic expansion on a finite planet – is seriously flawed.” Maybe having such a common sense 7th generation view is not in vogue.

  3. Linda

    When I heard this news reported early this morning, I knew that you would be right on top of it.
    I was greatly surprised that he would take this initiative now, or at all for that matter.
    But I want to learn more about what the proposals are and how they will be implemented.
    I do not see him as anti-environment.

  4. ChH

    Say it with me:
    “Yes we can end the moratorium without devastating fisheries and marine mammals”
    “Yes we can …”
    “Yes we can …”
    “Yes we can …”
    “Yes we can …”
    “Yes we can …”
    “Yes we can …”

  5. Anthony McCarthy

    This is just more evidence that if the Barack Obama who asked for your vote is go govern, it’s going to depend on Nancy Pelosi and the Progressive Caucus to defeat the triangulating Obama who was all to apparently in charge last year.

    This is unacceptable. From what I understand it’s supposed to be a hand to Lindsay Graham and they don’t already have a firm guarantee from him.

    The Senate is the worst part of our government, we can work with the House, the Senate is hopeless.

  6. Chloride

    I think Obama is trying to enact a short-term measure. The question is; what are we going to do until the Gen 4 nuclear reactors, the solar and wind plants come online? What’s going to sustain our economy at the same standards in the near future? Unfortunately the only power sources that can supply us in the interim while other sources of energy become available are still fossil fuels. If that’s the case, should we rather use our own or should we keep on getting them from the Middle East? The question of course is, ‘at what environmental cost’, and about that we could have a healthy debate.

  7. Eric the Leaf

    Chloride, this is not even a short term measure, since (1) we won’t see any oil from these tracts for perhaps 7-10 years and (2) there is no certainty about how much oil is out there. It may well be very little. You must also consider flow rates, which will in any case not make up for the standard declines. Any combination of “other sources” is not likely to come on-line until real shortages of oil become the norm. At that point we are truly screwed and it seems to me that it is coming full speed ahead.

  8. Eric the Leaf

    A little more from ROCKMAN over at TheOilDrum, where energy experts reside:

    “Here’s a hint as to the timing issue: “Spectrum was the first company to actively collect multi-client seismic data since the leasing and drilling moratorium went into effect in the mid-1980s. It is currently reprocessing and studying existing seismic data from the U.S East Coast. In 2006, the company submitted permit applications to the Minerals Management Service (MMS) to conduct seismic, gravity and magnetic surveys off the US East Coast. The new survey would extend Spectrum’s U.S multi-client library, which has been growing since the company began acquisition offshore Florida in 2003. This modern seismic now covers much of the “un-leased” area of Eastern Gulf of Mexico.

    Upon receiving permit approvals, Spectrum plans to actively pursue a comprehensive program to acquire seismic and other geophysical data over the U.S Atlantic offshore continental shelf and deepwater areas focusing its activities with the knowledge gained from the reprocessed data.”

    And this is just the preliminary step before beginning the serious desk top exploration phase. After a year or more likely two of that process then individual lease blocks have to be nominated for a specific sale. The leasability of those blocks has to be investigated…another year or two. Then you have the lease sale itself. The high bidders might want additional seismic surveys: add another year or two. And then when the companies decide to drill on a specific spot it can take a year or more to get the drilling permit approved. Just because a company might have paid the Feds $10 million for the lease and then maybe another $10 million on seismic and overhead they still don’t have the right to drill. They have to conduct environmental, archeological and sea floor audits to get a permit. And permits can be denied for any number of reasons. Once the permit is in hand then drilling rigs have to be mobilized to the east coast. This scheduling could run anywhere from a few months to over a year.

    And all this time is spent getting the first few wells drilled. It might take 4 or 5 years of such activities before a commercial field is discovered. Then, depending on size of the field and water depth, it might take 1 to 2 years before a drilling platform is built (probably in Texas or La.) and set. And then add 1 to 3 years to drill any development wells. And if all they find is NG it better be a big field: a pipeline could cost several billion $’s and take 5 years to lay.

    I think you get the idea: if there are commercial fields to be found off the east coast it will be a minimum of 10 to 15 years before any significant volume of hydrocarbons can entire the market IMHO.”

  9. Chloride

    I see what you are saying. My point is that if we are going to be sustained by oil for the next two decades or so anyway, some of it might as well be our own. It’s probably going to take much more than 15 years before large-scale solar, wind or nuclear becomes a reality. Do I like it? Not at all, but if it’s going to be oil, then let it be our own rather than the Middle East tyrants’.

  10. Eric the Leaf

    I think it is important to deconstruct what you are saying, because that is instructive for all (by the way, I do not disagree with your sentiment).

    First, the notion that we could be sustained by ol for the next two decades is arguable. There is so much written about this that it is hard to know where to begin, but what’s really interesting is that normally optimistic estimates from responsible organizations now suggest we are in serious trouble, by 2020 or earlier (International Energy Agency). Careful analysis suggests that these organizations have yet to become entirely reality based (TheOilDrum). Spokesmen for our own Department of Energy just this week suggested that global peak oil is likely between 2011 and 2014 and that same department already has one full-scale and extremely depressing report on the petroleum outlook (The Hirsch Report, 2005). Princeton geologist Kenneth Deffeyes is probably correct that sweet crude oil peaked in 2005. I highly recommend reading some of these documents. They are there for all to see and are not some great big mystery. People just choose to ignore them.

    So, we are probably in a serious bind. Many bloggers talk as if solar, wind, nuclear, or other technololgies can somehow be scaled up in some kind of reasonable time frame to “substitute” for real declines in oil production. Of course, they rarely factor in realistic economic conditions, which look grim into the foreseeable future. However, the outlook is grim even in good economic times. Here’s an interesting back-of-the-envelope exercise I do with my students. If all of the energy of combustion from the gasoline used in one year in the United States could be converted to electrical energy, how many “average-sized” nuclear reactors would it take, running continuously for one year, to yield the equivalent amount of energy. Depending on the assumptions, that is more nuclear reactors that currently exist world-wide. Think of how many reactors must be built per week to accomplish this task. Now factor in the notion that coal combustion also needs to find alternative substitutes either to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions or to avert peak coal, and you get the picture.

    The energy requirements of modern industrial civilization are usually vastly under-appreciated and we are, as of this writing, almost entirely dependent on fossil energy. Without it, the edifice would crumble, and this is the most probable future scenario (see “Blackout: Coal, Climate, and the Last Energy Crisis” by Richard Heinberg).

    Now consider all of the different estimates for offshore oil “reserves” (they ain’t reserves yet!) and how long they may last if, as is true, the United States consumes around 7 billion barrels+ of oil per year. By many estimates, that’s less that a year’s worth of oil. And those concerned with the carbon impacts should not worry. It’s not enough to make a hoot of difference.

    So, it’s all one big pickle. But when I hear naively optimistic and unrealistic proclamations my doomerosity index spikes. And it’s been spiking a lot lately.

  11. Eric the Leaf

    Just to be clear, I agree with you. I just think these issues need a wider, more mainstream audience, and I’ve been hoping (still hoping) that The Intersection might someday address them. I also think that the issues are best “framed” from a ecological and anthropological perspective, which so far are most clearly expressed in the work of William Catton, Joseph Tainter, Marvin Harris, and most recently and succinctly, Richard Heinberg.

  12. And what you are all missing is that this isn’t just about oil, or pollution, or climate change, or using up resources. its also about jobs in coastal states. Think not? right now, Alaska, California, Texas and Louisiana (and to some extent New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington) are the places where we explore for oil, refine oil, build oil rigs, and run oil field supply businesses. If you are going to drill off Virginia, you have to have new port development and a whole support infrastructure close by – and it will be new from the ground up. Even the exploration phase requires people, ships and labs. So regardless of whether we get any oil, we get lots of potential jobs. That that, dear colleagues, sells in a recession.

  13. John Kwok

    @ Philip H. –

    I completely endorse your comments (@ 13). For once Obama has listened to energy experts and has not been swayed completely by his ideological soul mates. Still I am surprised that he hasn’t lifted fully this moratorium. But even half of a loaf is better than none, with respect to realizing that unless we do something soon, we could be held potential hostage to any oil producing country that opts to behave like a rogue state such as, for example, Iran.

  14. JOhn,
    Just so you know, I’m not endorsing his decision, just pointing out an obvious reason for it that gets washed out here with the focus on environmental matters. Whatever else Mr. Obama may be, he is a politician, and he knows that new jobs (or the hope of new jobs) in a recession is an important political tactic.

    He also knows that ending our dependence on foregin oil requires action here at home. I would prefer to see more action on alternative energy sources, increased fuel efficiency (we’re still behind the Chinese standards for heavan’s sake), increased use of mass transit, and the patenting of innovative energy technologies so it is American companies, and not german or Chinese, who reap the benefits. In this realm, increased oil produciton (which is at least 10 years off) does us no real good.

  15. John Kwok

    @ Philip H. –

    At best alternative energy sources like solar and wind power will provide no more than approximately 10 percent of our country’s energy needs. If we are to wean ourselves successfully off of fossil fuels, then we have to have as rapid an expansion of nuclear power plants as possible. Despite the risks posed by radioactive contamination – and these have been greatly exaggerated given the fact that France has had safe nuclear energy for decades – nuclear fission remains our best bet for reducing the overall carbon footprint (Incidentally this is exactly what NASA climatologist James Hansen has been advocating.).


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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