Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Offshore oil: 10 years or 10 months?

The debate over expanding offshore drilling in the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) has moved into at least two of Arizona's congressional races.

One of the controversies is how quickly new offshore drilling can increase oil supply and affect prices. Conventional wisdom has been that it can easily take 10 years or so until the oil starts flowing. But in the political debate some are claiming we could see new oil flowing to gas stations in less than a year.

As someone who spent a number of years exploring and drilling in the OCS of Alaska and California (albeit in the late 1970s), I feel I can weigh in on this from first hand experiences.

The time lag involves getting federal OCS lands approved for leasing, holding an auction, exploration and drilling by the winning companies, preparing environmental impact studies, responding to the opponents of drilling, having the offshore platform built and towed to the site of a new discovery, and drilling producing wells.

The U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) is the federal agency that leases the OCS lands and collects royalties. A couple weeks ago they announced that Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne "directed the MMS to begin the initial steps for developing a new Five-Year Program. We are, in effect, getting a two-year jumpstart on that process, but it is still a multi-step and multi-year effort to develop the program."

So, the Bush Administration estimates a multi-year effort just to develop the plan to lease OCS lands, which is just the first step. Each of the other steps take time. The environmental impact statement alone can take two to three years.

I suspect that opponents of offshore drilling who may now support it as part of a larger energy plan, are not going to readily drop any of the environmental review steps of the process.

Without a massive overhaul of the entire process, I don't see new offshore oil reaching us for many years. Now, that's not to say we shouldn't pursue it. The offshore areas probably do hold the largest untapped oil resources in the country. If we had allowed more offshore drilling during the past 35 years of the ongoing energy crises, we might have those reserves to draw on today. Starting today may offer more energy security a decade from now. But it won't lower prices before the November elections.

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