It was a strange scene even by the standards of an odd primary season. Rick Santorum, fresh off a narrow loss in Michigan, started waving about a hunk of jet-black rock during his concession speech on Tuesday night, Feb 28. "Yeah, this is oil," he explained. "Oil. Out of rock. Shale." But not under this American president. Like his fellow candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, as well as most of the fossil fuel industry, Santorum is convinced that Barack Obama is out to kill oil and natural gas. "We have a president who says no," he warned. "We need a president who says yes to the American people and energy production!"
It's a potent line in a country where many assume that Democrats despise oil and gas. Their instinct is sometimes right: There are large segments of the party that have never encountered a fossil fuel development that they liked. But Obama doesn't fit that mold. Indeed there is a strong case to be made that he, not his opponents, offers the best hope for American oil and gas.
Let's start with the statistics. After falling every year from 1991 through 2008, U.S. oil production has climbed for three years in a row. U.S. oil imports started to drop in 2005 under President George W. Bush, but Obama's policies haven't stopped the trend. Last March, Obama announced a target of cutting oil imports by a third by 2020; less than a year later, the United States is already more than halfway there. Natural gas production is also surging. The United States hit rock bottom in 2006, at which point the shale gas revolution began to re-energize the sector. That boom has continued since Obama took office. It's tough, in other words, to square claims that Obama is destroying American oil and gas with the record production numbers that the industry is posting year after year.
Statistics, of course, can be misleading. Most of the groundwork for what's happening now was laid before Obama took office -- and markets, not policymakers, can take most of the credit for the oil and gas sector's strong performance. Critics will argue that because the energy business moves slowly, many of the biggest consequences of the president's policies have yet to be felt. What might surprise them, though, is that this is where Obama could have the best story to tell.
Take the battle over fracking, a controversial technique used to unlock massive deposits of oil and natural gas in underground rock formations that has come from nowhere to become one of the most critical features of the U.S. energy scene. Santorum and his acolytes are convinced that tough regulation will kill this key driver of the U.S. energy boom. But if the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico taught us one lesson, it's that lax regulation -- in enabling industry mistakes to gut public support and confidence -- can be far more damaging. A spate of dumb and preventable accidents by poorly regulated shale developers would do far more to set back U.S. oil and gas development than some smart minimum standards set out at the federal level.
This White House has signaled that it prefers precisely such an approach, though precise details haven't yet been forthcoming. Undoubtedly, some in the administration would like to see a dominant role for the federal government and regulations that could hit the industry harder than is needed. So far, however, they appear to be losing. Last year, Obama had his energy secretary appoint a group of industry experts and environmental authorities to advise him on shale. The team, which included prominent shale enthusiasts like Daniel Yergin and John Deutch, produced a string of recommendations that were widely seen as constructive rather than adversarial. Fuel Fix, a news service run by the Houston Chronicle, described them as an "olive branch to industry."