12/01/2010 08:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Faces Reality on New Offshore Drilling Areas (Sort of)

Today, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the Obama administration had reversed its decision to open the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the eastern seaboard to new offshore drilling, delaying any decision until at least 2017.   New offshore drilling outside of the Western Gulf and (oddly) the Alaskan coast is officially dead.  I believe that permanent bans, similar to the one enacted by the State of California 30 years ago, will be enacted by other affected states essentially shutting down offshore drilling forever.  Florida is considering a permanent ban, though momentum for that ban has slowed in the days since the BP well was killed in September.

Offshore Map.jpgYou'll recall that the President had proposed opening new offshore areas, shown on this map as dark blue and cross-hatched, to new exploration just weeks before the BP well blowout.  The Gulf crisis scuttled that plan in days as reality of the scale of the disaster sunk into Americans' collective conscience.  The new (new) plan unveiled by Salazar today will allow seismic studies to be conducted on the east coast, but no permitting activity until at least 2017.  The eastern Gulf is now closed.  Forever.

The weird part of this new (new) plan, however, is that the offshore Alaska drilling program to be run by Shell will move forward; the only restrictions to this new program will be new safety regulations and development of spill control technology.  Since several of the new rules would require Congressional action, I maintain my prediction that the Republicans in the House will just stare at the President and do nothing.  The administration will cave, allowing new drilling offshore Alaska and the deepwater Gulf to go forward without substantial improvements in safety or spill control.

I just don't understand this latest decision.  I understand shutting down new area drilling, since the BP disaster proved that the industry really can't handle a catastrophic blowout and subsequent spill.  But allowing Shell to go ahead offshore Alaska?  What?  By the government's own assertions, spills are better handled in warmer waters since the oil just magically disappears (at least that's what they continue to say).  However, the Exxon Valdez proved that in colder environments, degradation of the oil and recovery of eco-systems takes not years, but decades.  The weather risk, environmental risk, and mechanical risk is much greater in the harsh environment of the Arctic.  So.  What does the administration do?  Open the offshore Arctic.  Bewildering.

And the real crisis continues unabated.  As untold damage in the Gulf is dismissed or covered up (or both), we continue to import over 60% of our daily oil habit from foreign sources, much of it from countries who hate us.  Our elected leaders' response?  Do nothing but talk.  Energy policy continues to be used as a weapon on both sides of the political spectrum for gain, even as we've lost control of our own energy destiny.  On top of that, we're now going back to drilling in precarious environments where the margin for error is razor thin with no real reform or improvement in technology.

We have only ourselves to blame.

Bob Cavnar, a 30-year veteran of the oil and gas industry, is the author of Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout, recently released by Chelsea Green Publishing Company.