DAVID R. BAKER, The San Francisco Chronicle, July 31, 2008
The U.S. Interior Department ratcheted up the pressure on Congress Wednesday to open more of the country’s coastline to offshore oil drilling, a move petroleum companies have sought for decades.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said his department will lay the groundwork for selling undersea oil-drilling leases on the outer continental shelf, including areas now protected by a congressional ban. Republicans are pushing hard to end the moratorium, which was imposed in 1982 and covers most of the East and West coasts.
The Interior Department has no authority to lift the ban. But if Congress votes to open the coasts to drilling, the department could hit the ground running, selling leases as early as 2011. Exploratory drilling would probably begin a few years after that.
“Americans continue to struggle with high gas prices, and it’s important that we do more to develop domestic sources of energy,” Kempthorne said.
As a first step, the Interior Department will solicit comments from oil companies, state governors, environmental groups and others as to which specific stretches of seafloor should be leased for drilling. The department will consider areas that are already open – such as the Gulf of Mexico – as well as those that aren’t.
The move pleased oil industry groups as well as politicians who want more offshore oil production.
“We’ve got to get off foreign oil. We’ve got to use our own domestic production,” said Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona (Riverside County), who introduced legislation this month to lift the moratorium. He said royalties from oil pumped off the California coast could be a boon to state government.
“I think it’s a better solution than raising taxes,” Calvert said. “Why don’t we take advantage of the resources we know we have and help address the structural deficit problem in California?”
But leading congressional Democrats remain adamantly opposed to lifting the ban. They note that most of the estimated oil reserves on the outer continental shelf – about 79% – lie in areas that are already open to drilling.
“This is nothing more than a political stunt to divert attention from the high gas prices that have resulted from having two oil men in the White House,” California Sen. Barbara Boxer said Wednesday.
Environmental groups also panned the Interior Department plan. Like the congressional Democrats, they want the nation to invest more heavily in alternative energy sources and start weaning itself off oil.
“There’s simply no way, with 2% of the world’s oil reserves, that you can solve our problems by drilling” on the outer continental shelf, said Jim Presswood, an energy issues advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Interior Department officials said Wednesday that they also want to increase the development of alternative energy sources offshore. For two years, the department has studied leasing portions of the outer continental shelf to companies that want to build offshore windmills or install buoys that generate electricity as they bob up and down on the waves.
PG&E has proposed two such wave energy projects off the coasts of Humboldt and Mendocino counties.
The Interior Department’s alternative energy effort will dovetail with the new push on offshore oil drilling, Kempthorne said.
“Alternative energy development and traditional energy development are not mutually exclusive,” he said.
Although the department will ask for comments from governors, that doesn’t mean the governors would be able to veto offshore drilling in federal waters near their states. States control the waters within 3 miles of shore, but can’t directly control development farther out.
Kempthorne and other Interior Department officials emphasized on Wednesday their desire to work with the governors. But they said Congress would have to determine how much authority to give the states should legislators lift the drilling moratorium.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opposes offshore drilling. This week, the Republican governor touted an agreement with his counterparts in Oregon and Washington to work together to protect the coastal environment, an agreement that includes rejecting offshore oil drilling.
“The governor understands that people are frustrated with the soaring price of gas, but in California, we know offshore drilling is not the answer,” said Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Lisa Page.