05/11/2006 11:03 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Drilling for Oil: Cuba Si! Our Continental Shelf No!

When news broke the other day that Cuba is making deals with China and India to drill for offshore oil on its side of the line dividing Cuban waters from U.S. territory, oilmen set up a clamor to drill on our side, too. Largely for environmental reasons, drilling near our coasts has been banned for several decades. "This is the irony of ironies," complained Charles T. Drevna, executive vice president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association. "We have chosen to lock up our resources and stand by to be spectators while [China and India] come in and benefit from things right in our own backyard."

Drevna took it for granted -- as many do, thanks to long conditioning -- that if the ban were lifted, the major oil companies would be granted leases to pump the oil and would sell it at a hefty profit. In this scenario, given past performance, Congress might even fatten the gains by granting drilling incentives and a gracious waiver of any royalties. That's the way the offshore game has been played for years. But it doesn't have to be.

That oil is on federally owned sections of the continental shelf, and it belongs to all Americans. We should pump it the way Norway does (see "The Oil Industry Is Driving Away Our Future -- The Norway Solution," 4/24/06), by setting up a national oil company to make sure the wells are safe and clean and to use the profits for the general benefit -- to fund research and programs for alternative fuels, to invest in mass transportation, and not to create fat salaries and retirement packages for oilmen earned by selling our resources back to us in the form gasoline, diesel, heating oil, and the like at egregious prices. If the big companies want a piece of the action, we can pay them fairly for their technology and expertise and still keep the vast bulk of the revenue that could be used to fund the ways and means to get the fossil fuel monkey off our back.

There's a compelling case to be made for drilling in our coastal waters. According to the Interior Department, the outer continental shelf holds more than 115 billion barrels of oil and 633 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That's an enormous treasure that would go a long way to reestablishing our energy self reliance. But it needs be developed in a manner where the nation's interest stand front and center, both economically and environmentally.

Another reason for acting promptly in the waters near Cuba's territory: At least some of Cuba's wells will be tapping pools that straddle the boundary, meaning that China and India will be pumping oil and gas flowing from our part of the shelf.

Opponents of drilling cite environmental hazards. But a national oil company could give the public the needed comfort that our environmental interests are being safeguarded, and that the oil and gas produced would wind up fueling American cars and heating American homes.

As a telling side note, the oil industry's core focus on profit was exemplified by Exxon-Mobil's CEO Rex Tillerson's (where do they find these guys?) May 3 comments on NBC's Today show: "It's a free market . . . we're in the business to make money." In truth, the big oil companies have, through word and deed, forfeited their right to husband our nation's resources. New solutions are urgently called for.

If we let the offshore game go on as usual, we can be sure that the K Street lobbyists, their pet Congressmen and women, and their pals in the administration will make it just one more boondoggle for the oil patch. The profits will be huge -- and they will come out of our pockets. A national oil trust to develop the oil and gas on federal lands is overdue.