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Thursday, July 21, 2011

U.S. Offshore Oil and Gas Resources: Prospects and Processes

Marc Humphries
Specialist in Energy Policy

Robert Pirog
Specialist in Energy Economics

Gene Whitney
Section Research Manager

Access to potential oil and gas resources under the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) continues to be controversial. Moratoria on leasing and development in certain areas were largely eliminated in 2008 and 2009, although a few areas remain legislatively off limits to leasing. The 112th Congress may be unlikely to reinstate broad leasing moratoria, but some Members have expressed interest in protecting areas (e.g., the Georges Bank or Northern California) or establishing protective coastal buffers. Pressure to expand oil and gas supplies and protect coastal environments and communities will likely lead Congress and the Administration to consider carefully which areas to keep open to leasing and which to protect from development.

The oil spill that occurred on April 20, 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico brought increased attention to offshore drilling risks. Consideration of offshore development for any purpose has raised concerns over the protection of the marine and coastal environment. In addition to the oil spill, historical events associated with offshore oil production, such as the large oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA, in 1969, cause both opponents and proponents of offshore development to consider the risks and to weigh those risks against the economic and social benefits of the development.

On December 1, 2010, the Obama Administration announced its Revised Program (RP) for the remainder of the 2007-2012 OCS Leasing Program. Among other components, the RP eliminates five Alaskan lease sales (sales 209, 212, 214, 217, and 221) that had been contemplated in the current lease program. Lease sale 219 in the Cook Inlet (scheduled to be held in 2011) was cancelled because of a lack of industry interest. Further, the Obama Administration, under executive authority, withdrew the North Aleutian Basin Planning Area from oil and gas leasing activity until June 30, 2017. Public hearings began in 2010 on the scope of the 2012-2017 OCS oil and gas leasing program, but the RP excludes all three Atlantic and all four Pacific Coast planning areas at least through 2017. Three planning areas in Alaska (Cook Inlet, Chukchi, and Beaufort Sea) are being scoped as well. Since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, President Obama has cancelled the August lease sale (215) and the Mid-Atlantic lease sale (220).

Three bills that were passed in the House in May 2011 would address permitting efficiencies (H.R. 1229), enforce certain lease sales in the current five-year planning period (H.R. 1230) and require lease sales in the “most promising” OCS Planning Areas during the 2012-2017 Lease Program (H.R. 1231).

Exploration and production proceed in stages during which increasing data provide increasing certainty about volumes of oil and gas present. Prior to discovery by drilling wells, the estimated volumes of oil and gas are termed undiscovered resources. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) conducts assessments of undiscovered technically recoverable resources (UTRR) on the U.S. OCS. The statistical certainty of these assessment estimates varies by region because the availability of geologic data varies widely by region. One characteristic of the U.S. oil market, as well as of world oil markets, is that the access to supply tends to be sequential. Normally, the first source of oil used by a nation is domestic production, if available. The ultimate impact of oil and gas development in offshore areas will depend on oil and gas prices, volumes of resources actually discovered, infrastructure development, and restrictions placed on development, all of which currently carry significant uncertainties.

Date of Report: June 30, 2011
Number of Pages: 34
Order Number: R40645
Price: $29.95

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