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Help lies below the surface

Has OPEC infiltrated Congress? That sure would explain the latest energy bill.

Make that the "anti-energy" bill. Both the Senate-approved version and the forthcoming House one are bad enough for what they contain. But they're worse for what they lack: even one drop of additional domestic oil.

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America remains the world's only oil-producing nation that has placed a significant amount of its reserves off limits. Yet the lawmakers behind these misguided "energy" bills seem more than happy to keep it that way.

A recent Interior Department study estimates that 21 billion barrels of oil lie untapped beneath federally controlled lands, mostly in the West and Alaska. That equals 30 years of current imports from Saudi Arabia.

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There's a lot of natural gas as well. Unfortunately, the department found that "just 3 percent of onshore federal oil and 13 percent of onshore federal gas are accessible under standard lease terms." In other words, only this tiny percentage of energy can be produced without serious legal or regulatory impediments. Some of the rest is accessible, but only if energy companies successfully wade through all the red tape.

Most disturbing, "51 percent of oil and 27 percent of the natural gas are presently closed to leasing" - or completely off limits.

Granted, few Americans want unrestricted oil and gas wells in our treasured national parks or historical sites. However, the current drilling restrictions go well beyond any such reasonable limits. This is especially true given advances in drilling technology that have drastically reduced the above-ground environmental footprint and the risk of spills.

A companion Interior Department report on offshore oil reads much the same. An estimated 19 billion barrels of oil sit below the 85 percent of our territorial waters where drilling is not allowed. It's worth noting that - as with the onshore estimates - these initial energy inventories usually prove to be on the low side.

America's untapped oil is not nearly enough to end imports from hostile regimes, but it is enough to reduce them. As things stand, however, imports are gradually increasing, from less than 40 percent during the Arab oil embargo days of the 1970s to more than 60 percent today.

More American drilling is a partial solution to our energy challenges. We should be doing all we can - with sensible environmental safeguards - to maximize domestic output. Producing extra barrels of "Made in America" crude would enable us to lower prices and to compete with imports.

However, congressional efforts to reduce the restrictions holding back domestic energy production have fallen short in previous years. And now the new Congress isn't even trying. The Senate energy bill does nothing to lift the restrictions, and the House version seeks to add new ones.

Of course, OPEC hasn't really infiltrated Congress. Why would it want to? Surely America's current domestic energy policy suits it just fine.

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Ben Lieberman is a senior policy analyst in the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services


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