It’s been nearly a year since the federal government responded to the will of the American people and retired its decades-old bans on responsible offshore energy exploration.  Unfortunately, one year later, it seems as though that long overdue response was merely a gesture.  In fact, not only are we no closer to tapping those “newly available” offshore areas, but the areas with the greatest potential off Alaska’s coast, which were available last year, are now off the table until such time as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar sees fit to complete a court-ordered “sensitivity” analysis of information his department already has.  Meanwhile, as Secretary Salazar continues to slow walk a plan to finally allow Americans to access the vast offshore energy supplies the government’s held hostage for nearly 30 years,  House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall is holding hearings this week on sweeping legislation designed to add a few more hefty layers of bureaucratic red tape to the federal leasing process, and ultimately make it even more difficult and more expensive to put Americans to work producing American energy on what little land the government offers for lease both on and off our shores.

But what’s most troubling about this misguided proposal – besides the fact that it will make American energy more expensive and less available at a time when Americans are demanding more, affordable energy – is  that it’s based on flawed intelligence.  The basis for the “use it or lose it” portion of the bill, for instance, is that energy companies have been “sitting on 68 million acres” (while paying millions of dollars in rent for those acres) in order to keep prices high.  And that 68 million acres, according to a widely cited report produced by Chairman Rahall’s staff last year in response to Americans’ calls to end the government’s self-imposed offshore energy embargo, “could produce an additional 4.8 million barrels of oil and 44.7 billion cubic feet of natural gas each day”. The Institute for Energy Research thoroughly debunked that manufactured canard, as did the Interior Department and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, so this time it’s being sold under the guise of “efficiency” and “accountability”.

Specifically, Chairman Rahall’s bill would create a new, duplicative and unnecessary government leasing agency and add more red tape to already lengthy federal leasing process, while cutting in half the length of time a company has to wade through the process – and the protests and litigation anti-energy groups file each step of the way – to get to a point where they can “diligently develop” the lease.  The trouble here is two-fold.  For starters, the Chairman seems to be contradicting himself as he voted for legislation in 1992 that increased the lease period from 5 years to the current 10 years.  And it certainly hasn’t gotten any easier to develop energy on federal lands in a timely manner.  In fact, according to data from the Bureau of Land Managemen (BLM), protests filed by anti-energy groups at various stages of the leasing process have increased from an average of 167 per year from 1997-2000 to 1,180 per year from 2001-2007 – a 706% increase.  And in July 2008, when the BLM held a quarterly lease sale involving 78 parcels, 100% of the tracts that were bid on received protests.  Every one of them.  Unfortunately, the Chairman’s legislation does nothing to hold these groups “accountable” for their “efficiency” in delaying any progress toward the diligent development of federal leases.

But perhaps the most striking premise behind this legislation — and the multiple actions the Administration has already taken to restrict and reduce energy development on taxpayer-owned lands — is that the Bush Administration was too “cozy” with “big oil” and offered up an inordinate amount of federal lands for energy exploration. The rarely reported truth, however, is that the Bush administration offered far fewer acres for lease than did the Clinton Administration.  President Bush also made offshore energy development drastically more expensive and less likely by increasing the royalty rate on offshore energy leases by 50%, an increase Chairman Rahall’s legislation would apply to onshore oil and gas leases.  So if Chairman Rahall and Secretary Salazar truly want to correct President Bush’s energy failures, they ought to reconsider their efforts to double down on the actions he took to make domestic energy scarce and more expensive.

But if the goal is to ratchet down the amount of energy we produce here at home and further increase our dependence on imported energy, this big-government, no energy legislation will do wonders to further that agenda.

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