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Enclosing the Offshore Commons

Once again, Bush is using fear and deception to dismiss facts and steamroll the opposition.

One of the most powerful tools for enclosing the commons is fear-mongering. This infamous pattern is now playing itself out once again with the Bush Administration’s attempt to open up more offshore areas to oil drilling.

The argument goes: “We must throw open our common assets to private exploitation, no matter the cost, or gas prices will remain high, our economy will crumble, the terrorists will win, and….[supply your own apocalyptic scenario]. The point is to start a stampede of fear – a diversion that allows corporate predators to justify an enclosure of the commons that would otherwise be resisted.

When sober, responsible minds look into the claims being made by the oil industry and the Bush administration, it becomes clear that opening up offshore areas will do nothing in the near term to solve high gas prices, and little over the long term as well.


Photo by ccgd, via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons BY-ND license.

The Los Angeles Times explains:
“The vast majority of the outer continental shelf is already open to oil exploration: Areas containing an estimated 82% of all of the natural gas and 79% of the oil are today available to energy companies through existing federal leases. Federal agencies are issuing drilling permits at three times the rate they were in 1999 — but that hasn’t slowed oil prices during the climb from $19 to beyond $140 a barrel.”

The oil industry does not even have the equipment to extract oil from offshore lands. It is estimated that new and existing drilling ships and equipment won’t be available for another three to five years.

Even if offshore drilling were to commence tomorrow, its output would constitute a tiny increment of the world oil supply. The U.S. has about 3% of the world’s oil reserves, so any new oil would be quickly sopped up by world markets and have little effect on prices. Then there are the tremendous risks that offshore drilling holds for other important ocean-based industries such as tourism and fishing, not to mention personal recreation.

Never one to let facts stand in the way of his political agenda, President Bush just lifted an executive order issued by his father in 1990 that banned oil drilling on the outer continental shelf. W. fatuously claimed that allowing offshore oil drilling is “one of the most important steps we can take” to reduce high gas prices. A lie. Fortunately, Bush’s executive order is largely symbolic and not sufficient legal grounds to open the lands to drilling; that will require congressional approval to change federal law.

The real reason that Bush and the oil industry want to open up offshore drilling is the huge profits to be made. World prices for a barrel of oil stand at $145 – and offshore oil is profitable to extract at a mere $60 a barrel. So there is plenty of money to be made by tapping into the American people’s oil reserves. If only the “people’s branch” of the federal government would consent to the giveaway!

If there is any silver lining to Bush’s latest gambit, it is that the commoners have started to wise up to the administration’s habitual use of fear, bullying and lies to get its way. Protecting our oceans for the long term — and getting a fair price for any use of the public’s resources – require constant vigilance and courage. The most urgent question of the moment is whether congressional Democrats are up to this challenge.