Why we can’t do big things anymore

David Holt President, Consumer Energy Alliance

At a recent campaign event, President Obama said that the United States “became an economic superpower because we knew how to build things.” He went on to list the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge as monuments to America’s capacity for greatness.

Yet somewhere along the line, the ability to complete massive public works projects ended. “When did that happen?” the president asked.

It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but we all know why it happened, and it has nothing to do with our capacity for innovation. The culprit is a labyrinth of increasingly complex and confusing federal regulations.

Take, for example, the Gulf of Mexico. Deepwater drilling was considered virtually impossible in the early 1900s, but technological advances and the human spirit of innovation made it a reality. Today the Gulf of Mexico is the largest single source of domestic petroleum in the United States.

Yet despite this operational display of greatness, the administration’s response to the first significant offshore incident in the Gulf in almost 60 years (and more than 55,000 wells drilled) was to shut it down by banning deepwater drilling. Government and industry needed to take a step back to assess the situation and fully ensure safety and environmental protection. But since May 2010, there has been a 37 percent decrease in operating rigs in the Gulf, 11 of which have left for other countries, costing more than 11,000 people their jobs — even though the ban officially ended over a year ago. The Energy Information Administration now projects that the Gulf will produce 360,000 fewer barrels of oil per day than what it was projected to produce prior to the moratorium.

Companies drilling off the Alaska coast are trying to navigate the federal government’s new, ever-changing rules so they can responsibly develop the massive oil resources in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, which could hold more oil than the Gulf of Mexico and would generate more than 50,000 new jobs. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency has consistently withheld permits for companies like Shell to operate there. Shell has had to spend almost $5 billion just to keep its plans on hold.

The Keystone XL pipeline would create thousands of new construction and manufacturing jobs in the middle of the country, significantly reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil and generate billions of dollars in new tax revenue. Environmental analyses show that it will be the safest pipeline ever constructed, a significant accomplishment in a country with over 160,000 miles of pipelines transporting oil products.

Yet Keystone XL has remained stalled for three years, with federal bureaucrats constantly thinking twice and requiring new and redundant analyses that always generate the same conclusions.

And now the EPA is signaling that it wants to clamp down on the domestic natural gas industry, which is in the midst of a technological revolution that is making it possible for massive amounts of natural gas to be extracted from shale. That will have spillover effects on natural gas-dependent sectors like the chemical and steel industries — unless the EPA has its way and stops American ingenuity in its tracks.

One could only imagine trying to build the Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge today. Each would have to undergo years of mind-numbingly slow bureaucratic analysis and debate. The engineers declaring them safe would be labeled “industry tools” and have their credibility questioned. Special interest groups, funded by ideologues from large cities far away from the construction sites, would pump millions of dollars into advertising alleging that the projects would permanently ruin ecosystems or increase air pollution by some unprecedented amount, regardless of clear evidence to the contrary. And lawsuits would delay construction indefinitely.

America hasn’t lost its willingness to do big things. Keystone XL would be a 1,700-mile pipeline connecting Canadian oil fields to Texas refineries. Responsible energy production in Alaska’s offshore waters would dramatically strengthen our energy security. Resuming permitting in the Gulf of Mexico to its pre-spill levels would put thousands back to work in a region where the world’s first offshore exploratory well exceeding 10,000 feet was drilled.

But all of this requires that the federal government get out of the way so America can, once again, take advantage of its unrivaled capacity for innovation.

David Holt is the president of Consumer Energy Alliance.