A US Oil Boom--Unless Greens Abort It

Just a year after the BP oil spill, America is on the verge of a new golden era of oil exploration and production -- unless President Obama and his environmentalist friends get their way.

This surge in domestic production would leave Iran, Kuwait and the Arab emirates combined in the rear-view mirror.

The US drilling boom rests on a technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to open shale-oil reserves. It's why wells are springing up in places like North Dakota, California and Pennsylvania, with thousands of new jobs in their wake.

Fracking has also opened up supplies of natural gas, sending prices plummeting. Now, even New York's regulators have recommended lifting the state's ban on the fossil-fuel gold rush that's pushed North Dakota's unemployment rate to 3.2 percent -- the lowest in the nation.

The irony is that Obama had hoped higher oil prices would make us all drive electric cars and install backyard windmills. Instead, they're making it profitable for US companies to expand the hunt for new reserves and to use fracking to reopen old ones.

Just last month, Exxon-Mobil announced the discovery of a vast field in the Gulf of Mexico, with as many as 700 million barrels waiting to be tapped. Other companies are using fracking to return to the Texas basin, the center of US oil production in the 1930s -- which will mean millions in investment and thousands of jobs for that state. Montana and North Dakota are sitting on a shale-oil formation that could yield nearly 4 billion barrels.

Not many Americans realize we are already the world's No. 3 oil producer, at 7.5 million barrels a day. The coming boom should add another 1.5 million by 2015. That's closing in on Saudi Arabia's daily total.

And oil-shale rich Canada could surpass Iran's barrel-per-day output in a few years -- so we're looking at a major shift in the geopolitics of oil.

Easy-to-find oil is running out in the Mideast. After deliberately wrecking a multibillion-dollar deal with BP, Russia -- the world's biggest oil and gas producer -- is looking more and more like a bad bet for foreign investors. If you want to make money in the oil biz, America will be the place to go.

But the environmental lobby is bent on preventing it -- waging an all-out war on fracking, claiming (against all evidence) that it contaminates ground water. The ideologues hope to use memories of the BP spill and a more recent one on the Yellowstone River to dam up all exploration and pipeline construction.

Never mind that fracking goes on thousands of feet below groundwater sources, and that Obama's moratorium on offshore drilling did more damage to the Gulf economy than the BP spill ever did -- or that the Yellowstone accident has affected an area of less than 10 miles on the edge of a national park of 3,500 square miles.

The promise of prosperity and jobs was enough to get even a blue state like New York to ignore the green lobby's fearmongering. But Obama may yet derail the boom.

The president has had the oil industry's two most important tax incentives -- the percentage-depletion allowance and the deduction for intangible-drilling costs -- in his cross hairs for a long time.

Both help oil and drilling companies recoup the heavy capital investment they need to look for oil, even when they turn up nothing. The White House argues that we must end both "tax breaks for Big Oil" to close the budget deficit.

This is nonsense. Manhattan Institute oil guru Robert Bryce notes that the entire value of the industry's tax advantage comes to $4.4 billion a year. The notion that scrapping tax abatements that have been around since the 1920s will put a dent in a deficit of $1.4 trillion is laughable -- and dangerous.

Besides, those few billions in savings would be washed away in rising oil prices if the impending rebirth of the US oil industry is aborted.

So there's more at stake in the debt-ceiling impasse than just how we pay for our government. It's also about whether America will dictate its own energy and economic future -- or whether it's left in the hands of sheiks, dictators and the EPA.

Arthur Herman is a visiting scholar at AEI.

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