No Way Found to Cut Need for Foreign Oil

By Justin Blum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Senate decision yesterday not to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge marks the latest failure of lawmakers to form a consensus on a strategy to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

Congress has been unable to agree to the two most significant steps analysts cite for addressing the issue: allowing more domestic drilling and increasing automobile mileage requirements.

"The system suffers from complete paralysis because of this," said Gal Luft, co-chair of the Set America Free Coalition, a bipartisan activist group that is neutral on the refuge but advocates other ways the nation can become less oil-dependent. "We don't make any progress. The only thing that changes is the level of dependence -- it increases every year."

Luft is trying to shift congressional debate to other possible solutions, including increasing the use of alternative fuels and using electricity to power automobiles.

While the ANWR debate raged, government analysts predicted that higher oil prices in coming years could have a more significant impact on reducing reliance on foreign oil than opening the refuge. The United States this year has imported about 59 percent of the more than 20 million barrels of oil a day it has consumed, according to government data.

The new reports, from the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration, increased the long-term forecasts for oil prices, which the agency says will lead to more domestic production, less consumption and thus fewer imports. The agency estimates oil imports will account for 60 percent of consumption in 2025, down from the previous projection of 68 percent.

"It's a very significant change," said John Conti, who oversees the long-range oil forecast.

Opening the Arctic refuge might have reduced U.S. oil imports to about 57 percent in 2025, according to the Energy Information Administration. Supporters of the measure have argued that is significant; opponents said it is too small to matter.

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum have called for measures to reduce the dependence on oil imports, saying reliance on foreign oil makes the United States vulnerable to supply disruptions and price spikes. In August, President Bush signed an energy bill that analysts said will do little to reduce U.S. oil dependence, despite statements to the contrary by members of Congress.

The oil industry has pushed hard in recent months to open more areas to drilling, using recent high prices as an argument for expanding production. Some lawmakers unsuccessfully called for opening offshore areas to drilling for oil and natural gas. Environmentalists have objected, saying doing so would despoil ecologically sensitive areas.

Officials in Alaska also have been seeking to open the Arctic refuge, citing economic benefits to the state, along with arguing for the need to reduce imports. Oil production in Alaska has been on the decline because the fields there are aging. State officials are worried about projections that Alaska's income from oil and natural gas production will significantly decline over the next 10 years.

Alaska officials also have been feuding with large energy companies over the slow development of the state's natural gas fields, another potential source of revenue. A state port authority filed an antitrust suit this week against Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP PLC, claiming they were restricting the nation's natural gas supply in a disagreement over the proposed path of a gas pipeline.

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