Op - Ed: Obama's Oil Abdication

Last week the Obama administration proposed a modest expansion of offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico in its first concessions on offshore production since last year's Deepwater Horizon spill. The five-year plan would, however, keep Atlantic and Pacific sites off-limits in order to avoid a controversial decision before the 2012 election.

As we continue our endless debate on whether we should have more Outer Continental Shelf development and where, all our neighbors have chosen to proceed. Cuba, Mexico, the Bahamas, Canada and Russia are all moving ahead on offshore development adjacent to our borders.

Each of those nations has weighed the economic benefits of offshore production against the potential environmental risks. All five have decided it is in their best interest to proceed. This means two things for our nation.

First, we fail to boost our offshore production at our own expense. America's neighbors are not drilling for fun or for sport; they've chosen to proceed to create new jobs, generate new revenues, and increase the energy supply and prosperity of their citizens.

If America pursues greater offshore development—with appropriate safeguards—the same benefits will manifest within our borders. Jobs will be created. Federal and state treasuries will receive a much-needed boost from royalties and leasing revenues. Our tremendously costly and dangerous dependence on foreign oil will be slashed.

Right now, America needs all of the benefits that offshore development provides, and we have more than enough resources to make it happen.

According to the Department of the Interior, our offshore areas hold more than 86 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 420 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The Arctic Ocean alone is projected to hold 20% of the world's undiscovered oil and gas. Yes, opening up regions in the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico to leases is a positive step, but it does not nearly go far enough.

If we refuse to produce more of our energy resources, we will lose significant opportunities to rebuild our economy and restore our international competitiveness. But that's not the only looming consequence. Less obvious, but just as real, are the environmental impact that may still result even if we refuse to boost offshore production.

Like it or not, development is now under way in waters all around us. Mexico is advancing on a deepwater well only 22 miles from U.S. waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Before year's end, Cuba is scheduled to drill 60 miles from Key West, and the Bahamas are proceeding with leases not much farther away. Canada is actively drilling projects not far from Maine's coastline and proceeding towards development in the Beaufort Sea, just east of Alaskan waters. Along Alaska's western boundary, Russia is aggressively moving into the Arctic Ocean, with exploration at the very edge of the boundary of Alaskan waters.

In a few years, the U.S. could wind up in a regrettable position—exposed to all of the risks of offshore development but with no control and none of the rewards. Imagine that foreign development is not done to our standards and a spill occurs. Neither geology nor ocean currents will respect our national boundaries. In some areas, like the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, the only way we will have oil-spill response capabilities in place or within a reasonable distance is if we are pursuing our own offshore development.

Sitting on the sidelines will also mean we have minimal influence on the standards and regulations for foreign operations. Regardless of our relations with neighbors, it's not realistic to expect them to match our requirements if we are not demonstrating that they are both workable and profitable.

Director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Michael Bromwich recently testified that, while some gaps exist in spill response, the U.S. has "huge advantages based on the number of decades we've been involved in this business of exploring and producing offshore."

He's right. And so today, we face a stark choice. We can sit between active drilling operations in neighboring countries, complaining that it's too risky to develop our own resources while the world around us does exactly that. In this case, we will lose the economic opportunities but still face essentially the same environmental threats. That makes no sense.

Our nation's best option is not to lag but to lead on offshore development—not only so that we can show others how it's done, but also to ensure our own protection and prosperity. The time for that leadership is now, not at some more politically convenient time after next year's election.