The Driller in Chief

President Obama's critics say he's been a disaster for the energy industry. But the numbers tell a different story.

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."

The Obama administration has a particularly strong case to make when it comes to natural gas. Smart developers aren't crying because Obama has put too much gas out of reach -- they're terrified because production is so strong that collapsing prices have crushed their bottom lines. The best way out of this situation is to find new uses for natural gas. Although markets will play a critical role in this endeavor, the most powerful approach is to get government involved. For those who believe in the urgency of fighting climate change, the right step is obvious: Adopt policies that replace coal-fired power with natural gas, which would slash carbon emissions and clean up the air at the same time.

Indeed, the worst political news for the gas industry in the last few years should have been the collapse of a signature Obama initiative: cap and trade. A modest cap-and-trade program would have increased the price of coal relative to that of natural gas and encouraged utilities to switch to the cleaner-burning fuel, just as it has in Europe. The best hope for boosting gas demand going forward is some variation on that theme, be it Clean Air Act rules that favor gas over coal or a clean energy standard that creates preferences for cleaner fuels, including gas. Both are policies that Obama has championed -- and that his adversaries have opposed.

None of this is to suggest that Obama's record on energy is without blemish. His delay last November of the Keystone XL pipeline sent an unfortunate signal to developers and markets that the administration was willing to waver on oil development when politically pressed to the wall. The administration's insistence that developers quickly drill on their leases -- known as "use it or lose it" provisions -- is difficult to square with how development works best. There is also a legitimate debate to be had about whether more federal lands might prudently be opened to energy production. In particular, though the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was good reason to take a fresh look at offshore drilling, Obama should probably have pressed forward with his March 2010 plan to open more waters to production rather than reversed course.

But most of the other criticisms from administration opponents fall flat. The White House, for example, has been called out for railing against oil and gas industry tax subsidies. But with the exception of the "intangible drilling costs" deduction, which can help smaller and more nimble oil and gas companies with their cash flow, these benefits are largely without merit; instead, they simply transfer money from taxpayers to producers' bottom lines. Obama has been attacked for slow-rolling offshore drilling permits in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico disaster, but the alternative could have allowed unsafe projects to proceed -- and another spill would have been devastating for the environment and development alike.

While Obama's opponents continue to attack him for his supposedly anti-development policies, one group seems to have figured him out. When TransCanada announced on Feb. 27 that it would go ahead with a segment of the Keystone XL pipeline and the White House embraced it, the response from a leading environmental organization was far from supportive: "Splitting the project means double the trouble," the Natural Resources Defense Council declared, en route to savaging those who would disagree. When the president spoke up in favor of a smart approach to oil and gas in late February, Joe Romm, a prominent climate blogger at the Center for American Progress, responded with a biting headline: "'All of the Above': Obama Names His Failed Presidency."

The attacks from the right and the left must make for a lonely White House -- and that should make those people who genuinely desire prudent energy development worried. Instead of attacking Obama for sins not committed or fixating on the handful of places where they differ from him, they should lend support to the president's surprisingly constructive policies. Both the hands-off alternative that his opponents advocate and the (at best) ambivalent approach that many of his erstwhile allies prefer could be far worse.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


The Fall of Homs

The rebels may have retreated, but the revolution goes on.

The siege of Homs is over. After a confused and ominous 24-hour news cycle, the Syrian rebels have made a "tactical withdrawal" from the restive neighborhood of Baba Amr, which withstood a month of rocket fire, drone-guided artillery shelling, and possibly even helicopter gunship attacks by President Bashar al-Assad's security forces.

But the rebels' withdrawal was not a total defeat. As of March 1, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) could still boast that it had kept some 7,000 soldiers from Maher al-Assad's elite 4th Division at bay on Baba Amr's outskirts, a claim that appeared corroborated by eyewitness accounts. One Homsi in an adjoining district told me last night, Feb. 29, via Skype that tanks were moving in and out of his street in a violent attempt to enter Baba Amr. They'd failed.

Although Baba Amr's fall was inevitable, the snow and freezing cold cast an image of a Levantine Stalingrad in the making. Electricity and water have been shut off in large parts of Homs -- a city of 1 million people -- for the past three days. Food is scarce, prompting the United Nations to fret about mass starvation.

What happens to the civilians in Baba Amr now, particularly with communication lines cut and no YouTube clips being uploaded, is up to the Assad regime's totalitarian imagination. The regime has apparently given the International Committee of the Red Cross the green light to send in humanitarian aid and evacuate the wounded on March 2. Clearly, this step is designed to lend the impression that the armed rebels were responsible for Baba Amr's misfortunes all along. Sources inside the neighborhood, however, say that a "bloodbath" is currently taking place. Seventeen civilians have been beheaded or partially beheaded by security forces, the activist organization Avaaz said March 1.

With the destruction of the opposition's stronghold in Homs, Syria's revolutionaries aren't going to melt into thin air. U.S. and European policymakers might like to believe that Homsis wake up each morning and consult the writings of Gene Sharp, but the bulk of the opposition now recognizes that the revolution must be accomplished through arms and that returning to the passive resistance of eight months ago would amount to a suicide pact.

After all, it's Assad -- not the revolutionaries -- who transformed this into an armed conflict in the first place. The original peaceful protest movement, which originally called for "reforms," was met with wanton acts of brutality. Nor have most Syrians forgotten that 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, an early rallying symbol for the revolution, wasn't carrying a Kalashnikov when Assad's security forces kidnapped him and then delivered his mutilated corpse back to his parents.

Would these security forces and their shabiha mercenaries promise not to arrest, torture, or shoot at more men, women, and children if the opposition disarmed? If so, who'd believe them? Tens of thousands of civilian fighters and military defectors are fanned out all over Syria at present -- will they be granted "amnesty" to trade their guns in for slogans calling for the toppling of the regime?

Changes are also afoot in the makeup of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the political body designed to represent the opposition, to adapt to the new reality on the ground. On March 1, the SNC established a "military bureau," consisting of civilians and soldiers, to unify the armed opposition and coordinate weapons delivery. The council's media spokesman, Ausama Monajed, responded to an email inquiry asking who would sit on the new military bureau by stating that FSA leader Riad al-Asaad, retired Brig. Gen. Akil Hashem, and Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh, and others "have [all] been contacted and [are] on board."

Reports, however, already suggest that Asaad wasn't even consulted about the new bureau, and Hashem has declined to head the organization due to an acrimonious argument with SNC President Burhan Ghalioun. And more bad news: Turkey has refused to host the new bureau.

Whatever the case, the military apparatus of the opposition has never trusted the aspiring political leaders of the Syrian opposition. Asaad called the SNC "traitors" a few weeks ago for not supporting the FSA and for "conspiring" with the Arab League. Meanwhile, Sheikh recently tried to set up a rival "Higher Revolutionary Council" to steal Asaad's thunder.

No matter who heads the SNC's military bureau, it's unclear whether it can actually unify Syria's largely autonomous and atomized militias, which are increasingly manned by civilians. Ghalioun was characteristically oblique in his Paris news conference about the SNC's military strategy, saying that the new bureau's job would be "to protect those peaceful protesters and civilians."

This implies exclusively defensive operations rather than offensive ones, which many rebels unaffiliated with the FSA -- indeed, openly hostile to it -- have already carried out in Damascus's suburbs and the northern province of Idlib.

Like many decisions devised through the SNC's manic-depressive policymaking process, the military bureau announcement was in response to the changing attitude of the Syrian "street." And it's not the only change that followed the international "Friends of Syria" conference in Tunisia last Friday, Feb. 24. For starters, the conference led to semi-recognition of the Syrian opposition by the United States and the European Union, which dubbed the SNC "a legitimate representative" of the Syrian people -- but not the sole representative.

The conference also led to Ghalioun's explicit offer to Syria's Kurds of a "decentralized" government in a post-Assad state. This is crucial. Kurds constitute as much as 15 percent of the Syrian population, and they want the sort of autonomy their brethren enjoy in Iraq. Ghalioun's overture was designed to forge a rapprochement with the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a separate umbrella group made up of 11 Syrian Kurdish parties, which had suspended its membership in the SNC and largely takes direction from Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani. Two KNC members told me at a conference in Copenhagen last week that "we can put a million Kurds on the street" the minute their demands are satisfied. This likely isn't an idle boast.

The Friends of Syria conference also led to the formation of an angry breakaway movement within the SNC, called the Syrian Patriotic Group, which is headed by longtime dissidents Haitham al-Maleh and Fawaz Tello. Tello told me the other day that this faction wants to better coordinate with the activists on the ground to bring their prescriptions for winning the revolution in line with the SNC's foreign advocacy work. This faction wants the SNC's 310-member General Assembly expanded to "500 or 600" seats to make room for more grassroots activists inside Syria.

"What we are pushing for is to make the base of the opposition broader and to make the SNC more democratic," Tello said, adding that the SNC's main decision-making bodies, the Secretariat General and Presidential Council, should be subject to elections rather than appointments and reappointments made by Muslim Brotherhood fiat.

All this is progress, of a sort, though how it manifests within Syria remains to be seen. Senior U.S. officials pontificating on Capitol Hill would do well to remember that activists and rebels have never waited for a by-your-leave from the U.S. State Department -- much less from external opposition groups -- to decide how to defend themselves and their families.

As Homs submits to what some are calling an "occupation" by regime forces, the next flashpoint could be Idlib, whole swaths of which are rebel-controlled and which benefits from easy resupply from Turkey. Well, what happens when the 4th Division tries to storm this province? Unlike one neighborhood in Homs, the vast province isn't so easily surrounded. Nevertheless, the last time a major assault was waged in Idlib, 10,000 Syrians fled to Turkey, where they now remain, living in tents. The Turks likely won't sit back and accept tens of thousands of more -- they may be forced to make good on their much-promised "buffer zone" out of necessity if not desire.

As ever, the one setting the schedule for this revolution is none other than Bashar al-Assad. The siege of Homs may be over, but the war for Syria has just begun.

Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images