In the midst of the midsummer heat wave that scorched the eastern United States, the Senate voted 71-25 to allow oil and gas drilling in a section of the Gulf of Mexico now off-limits to such activity. During the news conference afterwards, the bill’s champions decided to contribute some hot air of their own to the atmosphere, especially when they began crowing about the bill’s purported effects on oil and natural gas imports.

Holding forth in one of the many electrically cooled and illuminated rooms in the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist told reporters that “this bill will substantially reduce our reliance on foreign oil and gas.” But, as is usually the case with energy legislation, the relevant numbers point to a very different outcome than the happy ending Sen. Frist and his allies would have us believe.

The bill would release 8.3 million acres, a Maryland-sized area, from the ban on oil and natural gas drilling currently in place for the coastal waters off the eastern Gulf Coast states. According to The New York Times, drilling in the affected area could yield as much as 1.2 billion barrels of oil and six trillion cubic feet of natural gas that otherwise would have remained in situ.

To the casual reader, 1.2 billion barrels may seem like a whopping amount of oil, but in actuality, it represents only 50 days’ worth of supply. The U.S. has already imported about twice that amount this year. A crash drilling program in this zone could conceivably result in a maximum flow of 200,000 barrels a day, not enough to offset the 400,000 barrels lost from the pipeline shutdowns recently announced by British Petroleum.

Another way to look at the oil estimate is to compare it with the output from Alaska’s North Slope, the last so-called “elephant” oil complex discovered anywhere in the United States. From 1980 to the late 1990s Prudhoe Bay and environs yielded more than one million barrels a day. Though way past its peak, the North Slope still accounts for about 8% of the oil extracted in the 50 states. Overall, the amount of recoverable petroleum from Prudhoe Bay and its satellite fields should top 13 billion barrels.

The natural gas number is scarcely more impressive. According to the Energy Information Agency, America consumed about six trillion cubic feet of natural gas was this year between January 1st and St. Patrick’s Day. In other words, the volume expected from these coastal waters wouldn’t last through one full winter.

In piloting the coastal drilling bill to a floor vote, Sen. Frist successfully fended off attempts by his colleagues to attach conservation measures that would reduce fossil fuel consumption by substantially greater amounts than what would be extracted from this section of the Gulf of Mexico. Frist’s real objective, it turns out, was to allow four Gulf Coast states–Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida—to pocket one-third of the revenues generated by oil and gas leases in that 8.3 million acre zone. This unprecedented revenue-sharing arrangement was added to the bill as a sop to several Deep South senators running for reelection. Should we expect better from a body controlled by southern Republicans?

If the goal of this bill really was to bolster U.S. energy self-sufficiency, then it certainly fails the laugh test. But the numbers tossed around by Frist and company contain enough “truthiness,” to borrow a term popularized by Comedy Central’s Steven Colbert, to pass muster with that innumerate and homework-averse gaggle of scribes known as the Washington press corps.

There were, however, a few perceptive observers outside the Beltway who crunched the numbers and blasted the Senate’s action for the election-year charade it is. The prize for the most trenchant analysis goes to the Baltimore Sun, which wrote that the “nation’s energy future doesn’t lie in plundering seacoasts and other precious natural resources for ever-more-meager supplies polluting fossil fuels.” Characterizing the legislation as a “great fraud,” the Sun instead endorsed an all-out campaign to reduce oil and natural gas consumption through conservation, efficient technologies and renewable energy sources.

In advocating for a Manhattan Project-scale commitment on energy, the Sun clearly has been listening to Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Maryland Republican and the unofficial leader of the congressional Peak Oil Caucus, whom the newspaper describes as a “serious thinker” on this topic.

Wrote the Sun in its concluding sentence: “Congress is doing no favors for its constituents by encouraging them to ignore the fast-approaching end of the fossil-fuel era.” The Senate legislation must be reconciled with a decidedly more sweeping House bill that would open the entire U.S. coastline to oil and gas drilling. Can Congress merge a travesty with a full-blown debacle? A failure here would do its constituents a huge favor.


“Senators Vote to Open Drilling in the Central Gulf of Mexico,” The New York Times, August 2, 2006.

Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Review 2005, Table 5.2.

“Old Thinking on Energy,” Baltimore Sun, August 4, 2006.…

Petroleum and Natural Gas Watch is a RENEW Wisconsin initiative tracking the supply demand equation for these fossil fuels, and analyzing its effects on prices, consumption levels, and the development of energy conservation strategies and renewable energy alternatives. For more information on the global and national petroleum and natural gas supply picture, visit “The End of Cheap Oil” section in RENEW Wisconsin’s web site:

These commentaries also posted on RENEW’s blog:
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