Last week President Obama announced plans to open currently off-limits areas along the US Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico coastlines to oil and gas exploration. The move was criticized by many of the president's left-leaning supporters and some environmental groups. It met with only tepid support from the energy industry, where many people are wary of the administration's overall plans to take away tax incentives and give more funding to so-called alternative fuels.
President Obama justified his plan to open more coastal areas to drilling by citing the need to reduce oil imports. But he also emphasized the need to move away from dependence on oil and other hydrocarbons that are finite resources and also cause air pollution.
"We have less than two percent of the world's oil reserves; we consume more than 20 percent of the world's oil," he pointed out. "What that means is that drilling alone cannot come close to meeting our long-term energy needs and, for the sake of the planet and our energy independence, we need to begin the transition to cleaner fuels now,"said Mr. Obama.
But the president's statement that the United States has only two percent of the world's oil is disputed by some in the energy sector, who say this figure comes from old data and does not reflect the potential of reserves in coastal areas that have yet to be fully surveyed.
John Hofmeister is former president of Shell Oil and current Chief Operating Officer of the private organization Citizens for Affordable Energy. Speaking to VOA, he said President Obama's plan has some good elements.
"Any new access is good for the nation, good for consumers, good for energy security," he said.
But he says that while the addition of some Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico areas might lead to increased oil and gas production in coming years, restrictions on some Alaska sites might cancel out the gains.
Hofmeister says the United States needs to open even more areas to oil and gas development or face a future of higher prices and more dependence on foreign energy imports.
"I think Americans need to be concerned that we are not yet taking seriously the importance of hydrocarbons in our energy mix for the future," he warned. "Americans will ultimately pay a much higher price for the gasoline that they purchase because of the unwillingness of [the] government to open up domestic resources," said Hofmeister.
President Obama acknowledges the need to develop oil and gas projects because the country is dependent on them now. But he says the future is in renewable energies like wind, solar and biofuels, in which other nations are already investing heavily.
"Around the world, countries are seeking an edge in the global market place by investing in new ways of producing and saving energy," he said. "From China to Germany, these nations recognize that the nation that leads the clean energy economy will lead the global economy," said the president.
John Hofmeister also favors the development of new sources of energy. But he argues that the government is heavily subsidizing alternatives that are still decades away from full development and not fully supporting the coal, natural gas, oil and nuclear operations that provide most of our current energy.
"Ninety-three percent of all the energy we consume in this country comes from those three sources - coal, gas, oil and nuclear - and that 93 percent is what has made this country what it is," said Hofmeister. "Where we are spending all our time and focus now is on the two-percent fringe of the energy marketplace, which is wind and solar and biofuels. There is nothing wrong with that except that it is only happening because it is taxpayer subsidized," he added.
Critics of the traditional energy companies say they have also benefited from government subsidies and tax breaks and that one day cleaner renewable fuels may be able to turn a profit without massive government help. John Hofmeister sees that possibility as well, especially if advances are made in solar and wind energy development and infrastructure in the decades ahead. For now, however, he sees President Obama's move to open more areas for drilling as a step in the right direction.