There's A Really Good Reason Offshore Drilling Is Down Under Obama

deepwater horizon

Photo: Flickr/SkyTruth

Last night, one of the most contentious portions of the debate was the back and forth between the president and Mitt Romney over energy policy. Obama correctly pointed out that domestic oil production was on the rise in America and drilling permits for federal land were on the rise too. 

Romney was also correct in pointing out that the number of new permits for offshore drilling was down over the course of Obama’s term.

His central claim: the last three years of the Bush administration had significantly more offshore drilling approvals than the first three years of the Obama administration. 

For some reason both candidates were skirting around the oil slicked elephant seal in the room, the Deepwater Horizon well disaster. 

Here’s a refresher on the permit response, as nobody seems to remember what happened and neither candidate intends to remind anyone. 

After the well explosion, as the oil companies displayed an inability to deal with the situation on their own, the president declared a temporary moratorium on new offshore drilling permits

The reasoning for this is clear. Deepwater Horizon had skirted safety regulations for years, and then this had occurred. Clearly, there was something wrong with the regulatory apparatus that needed to be attended to immediately. Compounding the problem by approving new wells when the process was still flawed would cause issues.

Some democrats and environmental groups demanded a permanent moratorium. The president elected to make it a temporary one. 

So for six months in 2010, nearly zero permits were issued to drill.

In essence, then, Mitt Romney is comparing three years of Bush approvals to two and a half years of Obama approvals. He could dispute the intention behind the implementation of the moratorium, but he hasn’t yet. 

After the moratorium was lifted, the Department of Interior resumed issuing permits at a similar rate to pre-Deepwater Horizon, although with a longer lead time. 

Here are several charts adapted from the Greater New Orleans Inc. Gulf Permit Index.  Here’s the status of deepwater well approvals in the Gulf of Mexico — wells like the one that caused the spill:

Deepwater Well approvals

Photo: Gulf Permit Index, GNO Inc.

Here’s the permit approval status for shallow water wells in the Gulf of Mexico:

offshore drilling permits shallow

Photo: Gulf Permit Index, GNO Inc

Observe how during the moratorium on new permits there was a huge crash in permit approvals, but right after there was a resurgence.

Shallow water drilling saw a marked resurgence to higher levels, while deepwater drilling took some time to adjust to the new regulatory apparatus with a return to pre-spill levels in 2012.  

So is Mitt Romney right? Well, his numbers are accurate. But they’ve also been stripped of context.

The narrative that the Obama administration has been vehemently anti-offshore drilling doesn’t really hold up when the charts show a consistent approval of new offshore projects.

That, plus the increase in domestic oil production as well, should give Obama a sturdy counterattack if he can bring himself to mention the fact that the Deepwater Horizon spill occurred.

He’ll also have to justify his decision to implement a temporary moratorium, which is another task altogether. 

Now see how Mitt Romney lost the debate >

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