A Closer Look At Offshore Drilling Gas prices hit record highs this summer, putting the energy debate at the top of the agenda and raising questions about the possibilities of offshore drilling. People who live and work in the shadow of offshore drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico weigh in with their stories and opinions.
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A Closer Look At Offshore Drilling

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Gas prices are down a bit over the past week or so but still way, way up from a year ago. The cost of fuel is a big factor in higher prices of food and just about everything else, and it's become a major political issue, in particular, over whether Congress should lift the moratorium that bans drilling along 85 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf in the lower 48 states and let states decide whether drilling should resume.

But what's it like for those of us who already live with oil and gas platforms along the coast, and what advice do they have for people in California and Florida and North Carolina, among other places?

We'll begin in Alabama where more than a hundred oil and natural gas production platforms sit offshore in the Gulf of Mexico and talk with two people who live and work in the shadow of the rigs.

Later in the program, a controversy over a novel about one of Muhammad's wives on the Opinion Page this week. But first, we'd like to hear from those of you who live near offshore oil and gas platforms. Tell us your stories. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And we begin in Mobile, Alabama. Chip Conklin is principal engineer for Construction Solutions International, a company that provides support services for many oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. He joins us from Mobile. Nice to have you on Talk of the Nation today.

Mr. CHIP CONKLIN (Principle Engineer, Construction Solutions International): Hi, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: And a lot of people worry that oil and gas platforms are ugly eyesores that drive away tourists and spoil the environment.

Mr. CONKLIN: Well, I can't say I agree with that.

CONAN: I wouldn't think you would.

Mr. CONKLIN: I work with the company. I'm the engineer for Construction Solutions International, and we're a company that has one portion of our operation that makes its living supporting the offshore oil and gas industry. So, you know, we certainly welcome it with open arms.

CONAN: And it's an important part of the economy in Alabama, which you have to point out, is one of the poorest states in the country.

Mr. CONKLIN: We don't think ourselves that poor. But it is important and it could be much more important should other areas of the Gulf be opened up.

CONAN: And what kind of services do you supply?

Mr. CONKLIN: Well, what we operate with one portion of our company is what's called a shore base. All those platforms that anybody sees offshore, everything they get that the people need out there, from spare motors, replacement valves to their groceries and their drinking water, comes to them by a vessel, a boat, and that boat has to go to some central location to pick everything up. Those are called shore bases, and you could think of them as purpose-built specific ports just to support the oil and gas industry, because everything they need comes in smaller batches than you typically think of in a port, and it must move much faster. And that's what we do, is we operate a shore base, and everything...

CONAN: I'm sorry to interrupt. And what do these platforms look like?

Mr. CONKLIN: You've got two main kinds of what we call fixed platforms. You've got manned and unmanned. Your unmanneds typically could just be as small as a stem, just one pipe sticking out of the ground with nothing on it, and it can be serviced by a vessel that comes up to it as a ladder so a guy can get to the top and that would be about as small as they can get. But your typical platform will have anywhere from three to six caisson legs driven into the ground, and it will be a large, steel superstructure supported on top, and it will look, to a lot of people, a lot like a drilling rig.

Most people who don't know what they're looking at wouldn't be able to tell you the difference between a drilling rig and a production platform, but the drilling rig can get up and move and the production platform never will.

CONAN: And are they dirty or do they cause environmental problems?

Mr. CONKLIN: Not that I've ever seen, no. The production platforms - I can't tell you what occurred 30 or 40 or 50 years ago. But nowadays, they're very clean, very safe. They're just like any other industrial facility you'd ever go to except they're out on water.

CONAN: And part of the price, you would argue that the United States is going to have to pay to free ourselves of dependence on foreign oil.

Mr. CONKLIN: Well, from our perspective, and given that we're just a small player - you know, we're just a support unit for these offshore energy companies - from our perspective, if we don't drill, what's going to happen five years from now? Gas is already, wherever it is, somewhere near four dollars a gallon, how are people going to feel from now when it's eight or nine dollars a gallon? So when you get started is when you can put an end to this.

CONAN: And one question - our next guest is somebody with a different view of this - but one question he asks is how is it that with all of those natural gas platforms off the coast of Alabama that the cost of natural gas in Alabama is among the highest in the country?

Mr. CONKLIN: I can't answer that one. That one's a little above my pay grade.

CONAN: I can understand that. As you go about this, how many people work for your company in this part of the business?

Mr. CONKLIN: In this part of the business, we've got about 24 people involved in it right now and it can vary where a general contractor our company is. So at sometimes, when the business is not very busy, we'll minimize it and put people to work in other areas of the company. When it does get very busy, we fold everybody into the shore base and do what's needed to be done.

CONAN: And how many people typically would work on one of those platforms?

Mr. CONKLIN: The largest platform in our area is owned and operated by Exxon Mobil and they can have upwards of 45 people out at there at a time with a typical number probably in the thirties. The smallest has two.

CONAN: And from your vantage point, I gather they look like somewhat like erector sets, those things you used to put together as a boy.

Mr. CONKLIN: Very much so. You're looking at just steel pipes driven in the ground, which we described as caissons, and they'll have horizontal levels of supports on them, and then you'll see the erector set diagonal bracings you're referring to to support it during storms.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Chip Conklin, appreciate your time today.

Mr. CONKLIN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Chip Conklin, principal engineer for Construction Solutions International, with us here from Soundworks Studio in Mobile, Alabama.

With us now is David McGrath, who lives on Dauphin Island, which sits three miles into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Alabama. He teaches English at the University of South Alabama. Today he joins us from the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio in Superior, Wisconsin. And I take it Wisconsin is a little easier to take than the heat in Alabama this time of the year.

Mr. DAVID MCGRATH (Dauphin Island Resident): Yes, it is. It's quite comfortable here today.

CONAN: And I gather that when the platforms, when you first moved to Dauphin Island, you thought that they were attractive-looking.

Mr. MCGRATH: I thought I could learn to love them, Neal. First of all, they do act as fish attractors and I love to go saltwater fishing, and they do seem to keep the island uncrowded. We're a small island, and I think many of the tourists prefer to go to the beaches that have uninterrupted coastlines.

CONAN: But then there was a series of accidents, including a bad one just about year ago.

Mr. MCGRATH: Yeah. In September, we had an accident that affected the island. One of the rigs, the natural gas rigs in Mobile Bay, essentially, the pilot light went out and there was a leakage of hydrogen sulfide.

CONAN: That's the gas that's normally flared off by a flame.

Mr. MCGRATH: Yes, it is. And many of us, including myself, never thought much about it. I would go fishing right up to these oil rigs and there are big signs on the oil rigs: "Danger: Hydrogen Sulfide." And we had a leak last September 4th that settled on the island and sickened quite a number of people, and there was an evacuation of the classrooms at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. And I have found out since - and this was a surprise to many of us, including the scientists at the sea lab who I was told by then that they were taken by surprise - that this gas is worse than hydrogen cyanide, which is what is used in gas chambers to execute capital criminals.

The next stage after being afflicted by this poisonous gas, after the nausea, after smelling - it has that rotten egg smell - the next stage is that a person loses all his senses, including his sense of smell, depending on the saturation of the gas and the amount causing the convulsions and loses consciousness and dies.

CONAN: Did anybody die last September 4th?

Mr. MCGRATH: No.

CONAN: Dauphin Island, wasn't that also the place where one of the oil rigs during Hurricane Katrina was blown off its moorings and landed on your island?

Mr. MCGRATH: Yes. Yes, it was one of the more popular photographs nationally and internationally after Hurricane Katrina. It was just lying on its side on a sandbar off our western end.

CONAN: So what advice would you have for people in California or Florida or in North Carolina if they were given the power to make their decision by the Congress and decide whether to start offshore drilling?

Mr. MCGRATH: If they're asking me, I would tell them, you do not want those contraptions off your shoreline. For matters of safety, for matters of health, aesthetics, of course, they are ugly. I mean, there are people on the island who've grown up with them and some of my neighbors say they've gotten used to them and they find kind of a comfort in them, but I'm thinking - and of course, I've only lived on the island for three years, Neal, and I'm thinking it's rather like those people who own dogs that bark and bite that everyone is afraid of and hates. But of course, they got to love them. They've had them since they've been pups and they're their own.

But since September 4th, the rigs have - well, literally and figuratively, caused me to lose sleep for the major reasons I said before. But also, I thought of this one evening, you can't escape them at night, either. I mean, we can see - our island is small. It's like two and a half miles by 12 miles. It used to be longer but Hurricane Katrina cut a big portion off. And you see them from every point where you can see the water, and then at night, the halogen lights are inescapable, and you can go in your house and you can draw the shades, but if it's a night when you want to leave the windows open, you hear the whistles and the bells coming from the rigs from as far as 10 miles offshore and the conditions are right.

CONAN: And quickly, though, what about Chip Conklin's point? Five or ten years from now, when oil or gas from offshore could start coming onshore, we're going to need it then. And we may have an energy revolution, but not in five or ten years, nobody thinks.

Mr. MCGRATH: Well - putting in the future like that, it's hard to gauge. I can only go what the United States Department of Energy said in their own report, I think it was last May, that the use of - that lifting the restrictions on offshore drilling will not have any impact on prices at the pump until 2030. And even then, the impact will be so small that it will be insignificant.

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today, David McGrath.

Mr. MCGRATH: My pleasure.

CONAN: David McGrath joined us from Wisconsin Public Radio in Superior, Wisconsin. He lives on Dauphin Island off the coast of Alabama. Stay with us. We want to hear from those of you who live with offshore rigs. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. I'm Neal Conan. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In a recent public opinion poll, two-thirds of Americans said they want to see more drilling for oil and natural gas. The hope is in many cases that that would mean lower prices for gasoline. It's a little more complicated than that. We'll talk with somebody who covers energy in a minute.

Our focus today on what it's like to live alongside these platforms. We'd like to hear from those of you who live near offshore oil and gas platforms. Our phone number 800-989-8255, email us at talk@npr.org, and you can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And let's start with Jerry(ph). Jerry is with us from East Hampton in New York, on Long Island.

JERRY (Caller): Hi, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: I'm very well. Thanks.

JERRY: Good. I'm not calling about drilling rigs off Long Island. I grew up in Santa Barbara. I lived there from 1955 through 1997, and I went to the beach all the time because we lived about, I don't know, half a mile from the beach. And as a kid, you'd go to the beach, and there's always been natural seepage of oil and tar out of that. In fact, the Spanish used to stop there to get caulking for their ships.

But when the drilling started in the early '60s, it progressively got worse. The tar on the beach, and now it's a joke. I mean, you know, the beaches in that area, especially if there's a southerly wind that blows from the platforms into the land, you know, I remember surfing there and getting blobs of tar six inches in diameter in my hair.

CONAN: And wasn't there a big spill there in 1969?

JERRY: In '69, yeah. It covered the median high tide line. There was about a two-and-a-half, three-foot black stripe all the way along the coast with, you know, thousands of dead birds. But you know, these drilling rigs, you know, they say they're modern, there's nothing seeping out of them. All you have to do is take one little plane that flies out of Santa Barbara that connects to the major airport. At the right time of the day, when the sun is at the right angle, you see lots of reflections of oil slicks in the water as you fly over the ocean.

So I'm not buying that thing about there's no, you know, seepage. There's definitely natural seepage there. But when they started drilling for oil, probably because of the change in pressure underground from the oil, there's lots of tar and stuff in the water there now. It can get pretty bad. It's something that Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce doesn't like to promote but it's a fact.

CONAN: OK, Jerry. Thanks very much.

JERRY: Yep. Thanks for your time. Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Joining us here in studio 3A is Kent Garber. He covers energy and the environment for U.S. News & World Report. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. KENT GARBER (U.S. News & World Report): Good afternoon.

CONAN: And that oil spill that Jerry was just talking about, wasn't that the spill that initiated the moratorium on drilling?

Mr. GARBER: Well, it was one of the factors that initially led Congress about a decade later to begin, you know, sort of the process of initiating moratorium. It started with California and then throughout the 1980s it expanded to include pretty much the entire Pacific and the Atlantic Coast, as well as parts of the Gulf of Mexico.

CONAN: But as you point out in a recent article in U.S News & World Report, just because there's a moratorium on most of the coast, doesn't mean that there's not activity out there.

Mr. GARBER: Right. And there's activity in the western Gulf of Mexico and the Central Gulf of Mexico, especially once you get out into deep water. That's where the real interest is right now. A lot of oil companies have started pushing out into water of depths greater than a thousand feet in the hopes of trying to find resources out there that either used to be not available to them, either for economic reasons or technological reasons, and I think since 2002 we've seen a doubling of the number of projects on the deep water.

CONAN: Economic reasons because, well, the price of gas and oil is much greater than it used to be so suddenly, if it was marginal before, now you could make a profit on it.

Mr. GARBER: Right, because it's very expensive to drill out in deep water. To operate some of these rigs it costs these companies more than half a million dollars a day. So it's a pricey operation. But as oil prices have gone up, there's a certain cost-benefit analysis that goes on there.

CONAN: And reading your piece, there are other restraints on sudden expansion of offshore drilling, including lack of skilled personnel and lack of equipment.

Mr. GARBER: Right. Both of those are huge problems. One, you have a labor problem where you have a work force that is aging. You have a lot of engineers and technicians who are now older and they're not being replaced by younger generation of workers, in part because interest at the university level in engineering programs for petroleum has fallen off.

You also have, as you mentioned, rig problems where there's just - in part because there's such a boom right now in terms of the oil business worldwide, that there's increased competition for these rigs in Brazil and in Southeast Asia. And so as more companies want to drill, there's the competition for these rigs, many of which are very expensive and only a few shipyards in the world can produce.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line and let's go to Bob. And Bob is with us from New Braunfels in Texas. Hello, Bob?

SARAH (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, is Bob there?

SARAH: No, this is actually Sarah.

CONAN: Oh, Sarah. Hi! I'm sorry. I thought this was Bob on the line. Go ahead, Sarah.

SARAH: Well, I had a question. I live in St. Louis now, so there's no danger of offshore drilling here, but...

CONAN: Very little, yes.

SARAH: Yeah. I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, which relies very heavily on the tourism industry and the beaches. And so, you know, this is an issue that is close to my heart, and my question is, the proponents of offshore drilling are talking about how it will lower prices, you know, whether it's in a year, five years, ten years or whatever. But if there's nothing to stop all this new drilling oil from going straight to the world market, you know, China and India are increasing exponentially in the amount of oil they use so there's no guarantee that America's going to see any of this oil that's being drilled off our shores anyway. So I'm just wondering, is it really worth the risk, given that we may never see a drop of the oil that's being drilled off our shores?

CONAN: Kent Garber, oil, as they say, is fungible.

Mr. GARBER: You know what, I think, again, the best evidence we have, the best information we have on this issue right now comes from the Department of Energy, which essentially looked at this issue of lifting the ban on the OCS and found that before 2030 that there would not be a significant impact on oil production and that the impact on prices would be insignificant.

And so as Sarah pointed out, that even if we do increase our production, the price is set on the international market, and so - many more factors come into play here than simply boosting our production to whatever degree we do.

CONAN: But more oil produced domestically would mean we'd be buying more of that oil - the money that we'd be paying for that would be going to - some of it or more of it - would be going to domestic producers.

Mr. GARBER: Well, I think that's correct to a certain extent, although the one thing that's interesting as we're looking to the future, the Department of Energy has sort of looked at oil imports over the next two decades and they found that they actually think that a lot of the increase in petroleum or fuel is going to come from either bio-fuels or liquid-to-coal technology, and so you have to sort of consider those alternative sources, petroleum against - the traditional petroleum, whether it's domestic or foreign.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much for the call, Sarah.

SARAH: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: And I think we did find Bob. And Bob is on line seven in New Braunfels, Texas. Excuse me, Bob.

BOB (Caller): Glad to talk to you today.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

BOB: Well, first of all, let me say that I served in the U.S. Congress and dealt with energy legislation back in the '70s and served in a position called Chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, which is just a three-person board that doesn't deal with railroads, but since the 1930s has dealt with all oil and gas production in Texas.

CONAN: And your last name Bob, if you would?

BOB: Krueger, K-R-U-E-G-A-R.

CONAN: Sure, I remember you.

BOB: And in that occasion, when I was serving as chairman of the commission, I found - because there were always questions about the environmental safety of offshore drilling, but there is a group in Boston, and I've forgotten the specific title of their publication, but something like, Off the Oil Spill Reporter, something of that sort. What I found is that the total spillage from all U.S. production for a year, all offshore production was less than the spillage of one small tanker that, you know, cracks or does whatever.

And so environmentally, the risk is not very great from the environmental - there's not much environmental risk to offshore drilling because it has been perfected to the extent that if we had to import all that oil, not only would we have a huge capital outflow but we would not have an environmentally more secure set of oceans.

And people can say, well, how many jobs does it mean? But you know, suppose we still had healthy American car-production facilities instead of depending on Honda and Hyundai and everybody else. Would that not mean more jobs here? Would that not mean more capital at home?

CONAN: And do you think he's got a point there, Kent Garber?

Mr. GARBER: Well, certainly, the oil industry does provide, you know, hundreds of thousands of jobs for Americans. There's, you know, also growing evidence that investing in green manufacturing, be it in wind power or solar power, would also be a significant spur to the American economy.

BOB: I'm not opposed to wind power, however, you know, oil derricks don't kill birds and we have an awful lot of wind power that is coming in, in West Texas amid the oil fields and also offshore. But there are always certain costs to anything. I mean, we don't get free electricity, and the reality is that since 1920, at least as five years ago, in America, 90 percent of all of our energy production came from three fossil fuels: Coil, oil and gas. And although the ratio between those three shifted at various times, the total number stayed much the same. And so, I'm not opposed to the energy or others, but they will faze in over time and meanwhile, for - particularly for transportation, we don't have any significant substitute...

CONAN: And all of - Congressman, all of this is fascinating and it's part of the debate. Today, we wanted to talk with people who live near oil platforms.

BOB: Well, I've seen the oil platforms. They're out there, they're visible, but they're, you know, they're just - they're far enough offshore that I've never minded swimming at Rockport or Galveston or anywhere else because they were a considerable distance out. And you know, I don't find one offshore rig any more unattractive than, you know, than a hundred wind turbines that are out there trying to generate some energy. I mean, it's - there are always costs to these things, and one of the costs is perhaps your view from the shore, but I find them pretty small and kind of unnoticeable.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call, sir. Appreciate it.

BOB: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Obviously, a cost to everything, but as I understand it from your article, there are a lot of new leases coming up, those deep-water leases that you're talking about, and there's going to be an auction here in Washington pretty soon.

Mr. GARBER: The auction will actually be down in New Orleans.

CONAN: Oh, that's right.

Mr. GARBER: On August 20th, and this is actually part of the regular lease process that the Interior Department goes through every year. They hold a handful of leases on track, available either in the Gulf of Mexico or Alaska, the areas that are currently available for leasing and drilling along the Outer Continental Shelf.

And it's interesting to look at sort of this, you know, particularly - so just as an example of what can happen because you have, you know, the potential for 400 million barrels of oil to be produced from this particular sale that's going to happen later this month. And yet, even when you do the calculations you realize that we consume about 20 million barrels oil a day. So you do the math and you're not talking about a lot of oil there.

CONAN: But again, it's some oil, and money that would be going into American pockets as opposed to Saudi pockets or Russian pockets.

Mr. GARBER: Well, certainly, you know, the debate that's going on in Washington right now, Republicans are - it's not only about gas prices but it's also about energy security and so the thinking there is that, you know, if we have domestic resources available to us, then we should utilize on them. So I think that a significant sense is underlying, you know, the Republican position on this argument.

CONAN: We're talking with Kent Garber of U.S. News & World Report and with you about living with oil drilling offshore. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's go to Peter. Peter is with us from Oakland, California.

PETER (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

PETER: I just thought I'd share a personal perspective. Years ago, I worked as a roughneck on an oil rig, and granted, this was onshore. And certainly, there were many environmental protections in place with regulations, but you know, I have to say that overwhelmingly, the perspective of my coworkers was that, you know, any kind of federal - let's see, how do I express it? They were very hostile to the idea of environmental regulation, much less from the federal government. And so they went out of their way to, you know, cut the environmental corners, you know. We went varied(ph), all kinds of nasty stuff. And if you raised your voice about this type of thing, you were ostracized by your coworkers and all kinds of, you know, nasty invectives came your way and such.

But I think - my point is that there's a cultural element here in terms of, you know, how this works - or a human element, I guess I would say, you know, how this works internally. And I'm very dubious when oil companies tell me there's going to be environmental protections for any kind of drilling because I saw the exact opposite for the entire time that I did that kind of work.

CONAN: Peter, thanks for the call. Appreciate it.

PETER: Sure.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go now to Joel. And Joel is with us from Santa Barbara in California.

JOEL (Caller): Yes, sir. I have a question for Mr. Garber.

CONAN: Go ahead.

JOEL: Well, first let me cater to why we - you want us on the line. In Santa Barbara, these oil rigs are outside and off the shore here. They're quite beautiful, actually. I think that it's more of an eyesore for me is to stand at the side of the gas pump and look at numbers just go at 100 miles an hour from my Tour(ph) coach. That's more of an eyesore to me. But looking at theses offshore oil rigs, I don't find them undesirable at all.

They're very beautiful when they're lit up, and it usually tells us how far or how close the marine layer(ph) is coming in, as well. So we kind of use it as a tool, but it's not quite as an eyesore as it is to be at a gas pump watching that thing just ring up.

CONAN: And your question?

JOEL: And my question to Mr. Garber is, as the lady was saying in St. Louis, I would think that we would be part of the competition with the Saudis and with Russia as far as fuel. Wouldn't that be more competitive for us to be able to lower the prices? Or is that just something that can be taken advantage of because of the money that could be drawn from it?

CONAN: Well, the prices are set, as he said earlier, are by the world market. It's sell itself per gallon of - well, it depends on the grade of the oil, too. Lightweight crude is the best quality, as I gather.

JOEL: So we can't be competitive? You don't see - I mean, because if you got two roofers in one city competing with another person and one guy lowers his price so he can get the job to do.

Mr. GARBER: Well, I think there are two points in nature and one...

JOEL: I'm an average Joe in Santa Barbara, you...

Mr. GARBER: OK.

JOEL: Have to understand. I'm not an intellect on it.

CONAN: It's OK. We'll get an answer.

Mr. GARBER: Well, I think there are two points to make here. One is that, you know, there's this, I guess, misperception out there that we get most of our oil from the Middle East or from Saudi Arabia. If you actually look at the actual numbers, about half of our oil imports come from the Western hemisphere, either from Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, as well. We actually get about 16 percent of our oil imports from the Persian Gulf. So I think that's, you know, an interesting point to take into account when we talk about energy security and where our oil comes from that, you know, to the extent that we can make it domestic, it also helps to make it, you know, from North America, as well, and a significant amount of oil does come from, you know, neighboring countries.

And I think the other point that the caller mentioned, which was interesting, is just talking about prices at the pump right now. In recent weeks, we've actually seen them decline significantly. So I think the average price of gas nationally is now about 3 dollars and 83 cents, which is down from the above-four-dollar price which we were talking about several weeks ago.

And there are several reasons for this, one of which is the U.S. dollar seems to be strengthening, U.S. demand has fallen because of high prices. We've also seen supplies go up internationally in recent weeks and so I think - to the extent that this debate has been galvanized by higher gas prices, it will be interesting to see if some of that steam falls out as prices fall.

CONAN: Joel, thanks very much for the call.

JOEL: Thank you.

CONAN: And we'd like to thank Kent Garber for his time. He's a reporter for U.S. News & World Report, where he covers energy and the environment. He joined us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much.

Mr. GARBER: Thank you.

CONAN: Coming up on the Opinion Page. What one writer calls a racy novel about the prophet Muhammad's harem. Was Random House justified to pull the plug? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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