Forced to cancel a visit to an oil platform off the Mississippi coast last week because of inclement weather — and the untimely leaking of hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil from a damaged barge in the area — John McCain finally got his photo op at a California derrick on July 28. Speaking at the Bakersfield site, the Arizona senator delivered extraordinarily good news to the beleaguered gasoline-consuming public as he explained why we must drill offshore.

McCain, basing his remarks on briefings he received from “the oil producers,” said: “There are some instances [that] within a matter of months they could be getting additional oil. In some cases, it would be a matter of a year. In some cases it could take longer than that, depending on the location and whether you use existing rigs or you have to install new rigs, but there’s abundant resources in the view of the people who are in the business that could be exploited within a period of months.”

The prospect of significant new petroleum resources that could be available so soon would be excellent news — aside from the obvious impact of burning still more oil — if only what the senator said was true. But what he said actually made no sense whatsoever, as a statement about the future development of domestic oil, the alleged need to increase drilling off our coasts or the resources that such drilling might produce. So let’s unpack that McCain statement (which was overshadowed by the news that his dermatologist had just removed a small lesion from the 71-year-old melanoma survivor’s right cheek).

It may be true that “existing rigs” could produce additional barrels of domestic oil immediately, whether on land or in the ocean, as McCain suggests. If so, he might want to ask his friends in the oil business why those rigs aren’t producing more oil now, at prices above $120 a barrel. An existing rig by definition is a rig that is operating legally on property already leased for exploration — and can produce oil unencumbered by any environmental constraints on drilling. In case the senator doesn’t understand, an existing rig is where someone has already drilled a well.

Where companies would have to install new rigs, the question is whether a lease already exists or whether the government would have to grant a new lease. New drilling on the outer continental shelf would mean new leases that are now illegal.

But as the Associated Press reported last month, nearly 75 percent of the existing leases on federal lands held by petroleum companies are currently producing no oil. Those companies today hold nearly 30 million acres dormant, according to the AP. Nobody in the federal government even knows whether any exploration has taken place over the past decade.

Perhaps McCain should ask his friends in the industry why they aren’t exploring or producing on the leases they already control. A truthful answer would be that those leases count as financial assets whether productive or not — and adding to them enhances an oil firm’s bottom line.

The senator should also ask an oil company executive to step forward and explain how any new offshore oil lease can produce petroleum within the next few months or even a year. If that is possible, then the Department of Energy analysis of future domestic oil production is scandalously wrong. The department’s Energy Information Agency released a study last year predicting that granting access to new offshore leases would not begin to produce any actual oil until around 2020, and would have no “significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030,” if ever.

As the Republican presidential nominee — and a putative environmentalist — he suddenly seems eager to exploit voter discontent over high gasoline prices to promote offshore drilling. He may even think he can ride the energy crisis into the White House.

Voters may or may not believe the senator’s silly claims about his “briefings” from oilmen, which mainly seem to have involved handing over a fat check. Indeed, so far the only beneficiary of his offshore drilling offensive is the McCain presidential war chest. The Washington Post recently reported that the oil industry “gushed money after [his] reversal on oil drilling” last month.

The oilmen never gave him that kind of money when he talked straight.

Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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