Obama said we can't drill our way to energy independence. Actually, we did.
Believe it or not, there was a time when a seemingly large, definitely vocal group of U.S. political leaders told us we must reduce America's dependence on fossil fuels – particularly oil. "We are running out of oil," they said. "We can't compete with OPEC," they insisted to us. And of course, the most famous warning they gave us: "We can't drill our way out of this."
This came mostly from Democrats. In 2012, no less an authority than Barack Obama told us that calling for increased production by increased drilling – "drill, baby, drill," he called it – was not a plan, but rather "a bumper sticker." Mr. Obama assured us, "You know, we can't just drill our way to lower gas prices," as if all the people who disagreed with him were simply refusing to admit that, deep down, they were wrong and he was right.
But what went widely unreported during the Obama years is that advances in the two technologies that are most responsible for increased drilling efficiency – industrial fracturing (aka fracking) and horizontal drilling – were creating a revolution in the U.S. energy industry. Production became much more efficient, even though Obama opposed these technologies. He later tried to take credit for the results – while conveniently leaving out the fact that due to his administration's extreme reluctance to permit drilling on federal land, all of the increase in production came from private and state-owned land. In case you were wondering, the same goes for natural gas. How reluctant was Obama to permit drilling on federal land? On average, the number of leases granted by the Bureau of Land Management to drill for oil on federal land under Mr. Obama was far lower than any of the four presidential administrations prior to his.
Yet in spite of the restrictive energy policies of the Obama administration, by 2015, the U.S. was the top producer of natural gas (most of the energy released by fracking is in the form of natural gas) in the world, producing about 20% more than runner-up Russia.
Fast-forward to 2016 – Donald Trump is elected president, with a very different energy policy in mind from that of Obama. He wants to increase production by repealing Obama's fracking rules. He also wants to make more federal land available for drilling – he even included opening up ANWR to drilling for the first time ever, as part of the tax reform bill he signed into law in December 2017.
As a result of Trump's policies, the U.S. is about to overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia to become the world's top oil-producer by 2019. Even the once mighty OPEC has been left in the rearview mirror.
What's next? Probably the next bottleneck: refineries. As of January 2017, there are 141 petroleum refineries operating in the United States. Believe it or not, all but 11 of them were opened more than 40 years ago. I would expect to see Trump reform the permitting process for building refineries in the same way he has reformed processes related to fracking.
Regardless of what Mr. Trump does for an encore, we now know that Mr. Obama and his fellow Democrats were wrong: we not only can drill our way to energy independence, but did.