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American Energy Security: The Vacuum of Political Will in the Nation's Capital

Stephen P. Chamberlain

For more than half a century, the economic growth and prosperity of the United States have been fueled by private development of this nation's vast petroleum resources. As oil and natural gas development on private lands matured, the industry turned to the promising resource potential of federal lands, both onshore and offshore.

The Constitution entrusted management of the public lands to the Congress, which in turn conveyed title and stewardship responsibilities for these lands primarily to the Executive Branch Departments of the Interior and Agriculture.

Historically, multiple use of these lands for mining, grazing, timbering, and oil and natural gas development has been the guiding principle adopted by Congress and implemented by the land management agencies. However, in the sudden wave of environmental awareness of the 1960s and 1970s, thirty-five new laws were enacted which placed enormous new requirements on all industries for environmental protection of these public lands and air and water resources in general.

A new profession was born--that of the environmental activist allegedly representing the "public interest" in resource conservation and protection. This self-proclaimed "public interest" movement has enjoyed enormous political influence in Washington, D.C.--a degree of influence largely attributable to their very substantial budgets and highly organized volunteer grassroots network.

The 1973-1974 Arab oil embargo and the shortages created by the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s focused public attention on the importance of domestic energy development. By the early 1980s, crude oil price controls had been lifted, domestic exploration was reaching new heights, and production declines had been stabilized. The petroleum industry had good reason to believe it had seen the end of the flood tide of environmental laws and regulations. Then the unprecedented world crude oil price drop caused the worst economic downturn in the petroleum industry's history leading to declining reserves and production and rising consumption.

By curious coincidence, recent years have also brought a resurgence of the environmental movement as international attention focuses on clean air, global warming, ozone depletion, and acid rain problems. The burning of fossil fuels appears to be a significant contributing factor in all of these areas and brings into question the viability of our continuing reliance on such energy resources. As a result, energy conservation and the development of renewable resource technology are the new watchwords in the environmental community and the subject of many Congressional hearings.

Over the past twenty years, two major petroleum industry accidents dramatically focused and shaped public attention on the potential adverse consequences from oil and natural gas development from federal lands--the Santa Barbara Channel blowout of 1969 which occurred off California, and the Prince William Sound tanker spill of 1989. In effect, these incidents provided the emotional catalyst that is swelling the ranks and coffers of the activists and increasing their media appeal and political clout.

This paper will discuss the implications that growing import dependence, heightened environmental awareness and the political fallout of the Prince William Sound spill will have on the willpower of our elected officials to deal effectively with America's energy security problems.

AAPG Search and Discovery Article #91028©1989 AAPG History of Petroleum Industry Symposium, September 17-20, 1989, Titusville, Pennsylvania.