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Raymond J. Learsy Headshot

President Bush Calls For Offshore Drilling On Federal Lands: The Time For a National Oil Trust is Now

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President Bush, responding to the national outrage over soaring gasoline prices will be calling on Congress to lift the federal moratorium on offshore oil and gas drilling . The issue of offshore drilling is being deeply debated and becoming a hot-button issue in the campaign. President Bush in a press conference today strongly supported drilling, arguing that it would greatly enhance supply and take pressure off of oil prices.

Well and good. But if this is the moment to consider opening large swaths of offshore federal lands to drilling it should also be the moment to consider the creation of an American National Oil Trust, much in keeping with the highly successful and citizen-owned Norwegian Oil Trust.

The offshore federal lands belong to the public. Their potential is enormous. The federal Energy Information Agency estimates that roughly 75 billion barrels of oil in the United States are off-limits to development and roughly 16 billion barrels are covered by the offshore moratorium.

We are also a nation who for good or bad have lost our trust in the oil industry to develop our national patrimony in a way that benefits all Americans. Certainly their policies to date are veering the nation toward environmental and economic disaster. Just imagine the extraordinary benefit that would accrue if the net proceeds of an oil trust would be directed to a massive national program developing alternative fuels and alternative energy programs rather than the bottom line of additional billions for Exxon Mobil, Chevron, et al. To calculate the values at stake one could fairly estimate development costs of $30 a barrel (and that is probably very high) to be deducted from today's $130/bbl price, times 16 billion barrels offshore alone -- well you do the numbers. A staggering amount of wealth that belongs to the nation's citizens rather than ceding it to the oil companies at giveaway conditions and buying it back at extortionary prices at the pump.

Let me cite some history showing that "hands on" government in situations of national need is not new to our experience. During World War II the nation's railroads were nationalized and administered by the U.S. Railroad Administration. Then there is the Tennessee Valley Authority (T.V.A.), a powerful and successful example of a governmental enterprise bringing enormous good to a region.

At another time of crisis there was President John F. Kennedy challenging a then-gluttonous steel industry with a forceful scolding, shaming them into compliance:

"Simultaneous and identical actions of United States Steel and other leading steel corporations increasing steel prices by $6 per ton constitute a wholly unjustifiable and irresponsible defiance of the public interest in this serious hour in our nation's history, when we are confronted with grave crises in Berlin and Southeast Asia, when we are devoting our energies to economic recovery and stability, when we are asking reservists to leave their homes and families for months on end and servicemen to risk their lives..."

Then, the steel companies backed down. Now the oil companies' bottom line just gets fatter. And there is no one in our leadership seriously holding them to account.

A National Oil Trust could be organized without undue hardship. Certainly there are qualified and talented oil people who would welcome the challenge of serving the nation in such an enterprising endeavor. They could readily replicate what the oil companies would be doing, which is to lease offshore drilling platforms to drill, and contract out the needed seismic testing to site the rigs. And if they strike oil or gas, the infrastructure will come. And from beginning to end it will the nation's resource to the profit of all its citizens.

As background, know that Norway, after Saudi Arabia and Russia, is the third largest exporter of oil in the world. Its National Oil Trust turns over its proceeds to the Government Petroleum Fund to help fund both pensions and to keep the money in trust for future generations.