President Barack Obama is attempting to create a legacy as both driller-in-chief and environmental champion, as he proposes to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness while also touting a drilling boom across the United States that he didn’t create.
Obama could take a major step for his energy legacy as soon as Tuesday, with the release of a new offshore leasing plan expected to open some of the Atlantic Ocean to drilling for the first time in decades.
At the same time, though, he’s pledging to veto a bill to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline and wants to permanently preserve the oil-rich coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known as ANWR.
Obama, in his State of the Union address last week, asserted, “We’ve set aside more public lands and waters than any administration in history,” while in the same speech boasting about the surge in oil and gas drilling.
“We are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we’ve been in almost 30 years,” Obama declared.
Crude oil production rose in December by 15.9 percent from a year ago to 9.1 million barrels per day, the highest level for any month since February 1986, according to the American Petroleum Institute. The United States is also now the world’s biggest producer of natural gas.
According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, though, oil and gas production on federal lands and waters under the authority of the Obama administration fell between 2009 and 2013.
Crude production declined by 6 percent while natural gas went down 28 percent on federal lands, at the same time drilling was booming on private and state lands.
“I don’t think the president is pro oil and gas,” said Charles Ebinger, senior fellow in the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the left-leaning Brookings Institution in Washington.
“I think this is a president who legitimately in his own mind believes that any kind of long-term development of fossil fuels just further locks us into a pattern leading to his concerns about climate change,” Ebinger said.
The White House cites geography as a reason that state and private lands are so much more heavily drilled than federal lands, with shale resources at the heart of the drilling boom more prevalent in those areas. And the Congressional Research Service acknowledges that “industry seeks out the most promising prospects and higher returns on more accessible non-federal lands.”
Ebinger said shale geography is one reason for the popularity of private lands with drillers, but he said the president shouldn’t claim the oil and gas revolution as his own while production drops on federal lands and he attempts to make the ANWR coastal plain a wilderness.
Interior Department spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said Monday that the administration is committed to expanding oil and gas development on federal lands “where development is appropriate and can be done safely.”
She said that Obama allowed Shell to explore for oil in the Arctic Ocean (a program stalled by Shell’s mishaps) and has offered federal lease sales from Alaska’s national petroleum reserve.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Monday, though, that she’s expecting Obama’s new offshore leasing plan to put parts of the Arctic off limits to drilling, in addition to the move to lock up ANWR.
“This administration has effectively declared war on Alaska,” said Murkowski, who chairs the Senate energy committee, at a news conference. “We will do everything we can to push back against an administration that has taken a look at Alaska and decided that it’s a nice little snow globe up there and we’re going to keep it that way.”