Such a Tease: Obama Administration Easing Up Ever So Slightly on the Drilling Moratorium

Erika Johnsen

11/8/2011 3:09:00 PM - Erika Johnsen

Throughout the relentless economic downturn, our ongoing unemployment funk, and the tedious saga of back-and-forth job-creation rhetoric, Republicans have consistently iterated that the Obama adminstration should lift the drilling moratorium as a surefire way to boost both employment and tax revenue, and to add wealth to our economy. The Interior Department has issued neither oil nor gas drilling permits off of the coast of Alaska since 2008, and has allowed for scant more than extending existing leases in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, Interior Secretary Salazar is proposing to hold lease sales of twelve areas in the Gulf of Mexico and three off of Alaska between 2012 and 2017, but of course, only under some austere conditions and regulations:

The sales off Alaska, where native groups and environmentalists have objected to drilling, would be the first since 2008. And they would be held late in the five-year timeframe to allow time for scientific evaluations in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, which Interior officials called a "frontier" for drilling. They also would be targeted to avoid areas with cultural and environmental sensitivities, officials said.

In the western and central Gulf, by contrast, the proposal puts all unleased acreage up for sale.

"The approach we are taking there is a cautious one," Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said of the Arctic leases. "We are aware of the substantial issues associated with major production."

In the long run, however, these drilling permits are little more than a drop in the veritable bucket of potential that is the American energy industry, and it's likely that the permitting process and regulations will continue to jilt a lot of the real progress. House Republicans, who have passed multiple bills proposing to speed up permitting for offshore drilling and expanded access, are largely disappointed with the administration's lukewarm approach:

"No new drilling or new lease sales will occur during President Obama's term in office," predicted Washington Republican Rep. Doc Hastings, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Hastings, who sponsored three measures that passed the House earlier this year to speed up drilling and open up areas along the East and West coast, Alaska and eastern Gulf to drilling.

"The Obama administration's draft plan places some of the most promising energy resources in the world off-limits," said Hastings, a Washington Republican.

Lawmakers from Alaska, who have pushed to tap its energy resources, hailed the plan as a positive step Tuesday.

But Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate energy panel, said the permitting process would ultimately determine the success of the lease sales.

Shell Oil Co. paid the federal government $2.1 billion for petroleum leases in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest shore in 2008, the last time federal waters in Alaska were auctioned off. But nearly four years later, the oil giant has yet to drill an exploratory well because of lawsuits brought by environmental groups and delays in its air pollution permit.

It looks like the Obama administration has decided to punt on the high-profile, controversial Keystone XL pipeline decision until after the 2012 elections, as the environmental and union subsets of the liberal voting base are warring amongst themselves over the project's merits. So why the sudden impulse to allow for a few drilling permits that in practice will constitute too little, too late? I severely doubt that President Obama and his big-government minions have suddenly been hit with the revelation that allowing the domestic energy sector to function freely will have myriad economic benefits, as the pragmatic results of these few permits look pretty meager. Do I detect a "Look at me, I'm so bipartisan, I've taken real action"-calculated campaign move in the works?