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Gulf's gas and oil, a mere drop in the barrel

But drilling advocates say the message it would send is more important than the product.

By WES ALLISON and LOUIS HAU
Published March 22, 2006


WASHINGTON - The argument goes like this: High natural gas prices are strangling U.S. industry, and the government must tap the Gulf of Mexico to provide some relief.

But would it really make a difference?

Advocates of opening most of Lease-Sale Area 181 to drilling, as proposed in a fast-moving bill by Senate Energy Chairman Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., often note the area holds an estimated 6-trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That's enough to heat up to 6-million homes a year for 15 years.

But that's a tiny fraction of what America uses each year, which totals more than 22.4-trillion cubic feet.

The estimated amount of oil in the area, 930-million barrels, is even smaller. Drilling opponents say that it's not worth the environmental risk and that industry instead should be pushing for more conservation and alternative fuels.

"We have energy solutions at our disposal right now that we could put on line and start saving consumers and businesses immediately," including solar and wind power and mandating more efficient vehicles, said Annie Strickler, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club.

Advocates of drilling in the gulf, however, take a more nuanced approach. They say drilling in 3.2-million acres of Lease-Sale 181, as Domenici proposes, would have a calming effect on energy prices, in the near and long-term, by proving that Congress is serious about increasing domestic production - even in important political battlegrounds like Florida.

About 85 percent of America's outer continental shelf remains off-limits to drilling, thanks to congressional and presidential bans. A coalition of business groups is pushing Congress to open it - or at least allow states to decide for themselves.

In that sense, the eastern gulf isn't a solution to the problem; it's the beginning of the solution. And it is a convenient place to start because the vast gas fields just to the west make it easy to connect wells in Area 181 to existing pipelines and platforms, and the Interior Department already has proposed drilling in some of the area next year.

"Just Congress acknowledging the problem, doing something that they haven't done in 20, 25 years, is a market-settling exercise," said Robert Flagg, a lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council.

[Last modified March 22, 2006, 22:04:24]


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