WASHINGTON – Congressional Republicans are planning to make another run at thwarting Obama administration conservation policies by forcing open additional federally owned lands to energy and mineral exploration.
The House Natural Resources Committee is preparing to consider two bills intended to make it easier to obtain the permits necessary to drill and dig on property owned by the U.S. government.
“Our onshore federal lands contain incredible potential for energy production, job creation and economic growth yet federal red-tape and regulations imposed by the Obama administration are keeping these resources under tight lock-and-key,” said Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
The pending pieces of legislation, Hastings said, “help protect our oil and natural gas resources from onerous, duplicative federal regulatory hurdles and streamline the process so that energy production on federal lands can be as successful on private and state lands.”
The Federal Lands Jobs and Energy Security Act, sponsored Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), streamlines the regulatory process for onshore oil, natural gas, and renewable energy resources. The bill would reform the leasing process for oil and natural gas projects on federal lands by reforming a lengthy energy permitting process and establishing rules for the development of oil shale resources.
Lawmakers also will consider legislation offered by Hastings and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) to require annual lease sales in the 23 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, streamline the permitting process in the region, and revoke an Obama administration management plan that they maintain hinders exploration.
President Obama’s conservation policy has long aggravated proponents of energy development who complain the administration is blocking and delaying access to oil and gas resources on public lands. The Bureau of Land Management administers mineral resources on 700 million acres of public lands, mostly in the west and Alaska. Of the total 700 million acres, 167 million have been withdrawn and another 182 million acres are restricted from future development.
Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, criticized Obama during the campaign for a decrease in drilling on federal lands during his first term.
“Public land should remain open and available for mineral exploration and development unless Congressional withdrawals or administrative actions are clearly justified in the national interest,” Lamborn said recently. “A thorough geological and economic assessment should be made before any land is withdrawn.”
Lamborn argued that restricting development of federal lands makes it difficult for U.S. companies to compete on the global investment market despite maintaining reserves of an estimated 78 mined minerals of importance. The U.S. currently attracts only about eight percent of the worldwide investment dollars.
“The complexity, uncertainty and delays within the current permitting system place the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage compared to many other countries that have a more welcoming business and regulatory climate,” Lamborn said.
In 2010, the Department of Energy determined that it takes seven to 10 years to obtain all the necessary permits for new mining ventures in the U.S. compared to a two- to three-year process in places like Canada and Australia. The barriers placed in digging its own soil means the U.S. relies too heavily on foreign markets to supply critical and rare-earth minerals even though America holds 40 percent of the world’s reserves.
That forces the U.S. to depend on China for a substantial portion of its rare-earth needs, an expensive proposition since the Chinese generally limit exports, causing the costs to skyrocket.
“The bottom line remains – America has abundant energy and mineral resources but instead of responsibly developing our own resources, we have allowed ourselves to become dependent on foreign countries,” Lamborn said.
During a recent hearing before the House Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Health Care and Entitlements, Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) displayed a map showing drilling locations directly outside of federal lands in North Dakota. He asserted that energy exploration firms are sometimes drilling on private property right up to the edge of federal land but not entering because the regulatory burden is too great to make the venture worthwhile.
According to the Institute for Energy Research, opening all federal lands to energy exploration would increase the nation’s gross national product by $127 billion annually over a seven-year period and create an estimated 522,000 jobs. That would result, Lankford said, in “American energy independence and broad economic renaissance.”
But Tommy P. Beaudreau, acting assistant secretary of Land and Minerals Management in the Department of the Interior, maintained that the U.S. is becoming less dependent on foreign sources to meet its energy needs.
“The Department of the Interior is engaged in a broad effort to secure the nation’s energy future by producing more oil and natural gas at home, developing and using clean renewable energy sources and improving energy efficiency,” Beaudreau said. “Since the president took office, America’s dependence on foreign oil has decreased every year and domestic oil and natural gas production has risen every year. In 2012, American oil production reached the highest level in two decades and natural gas production reached an all-time high.”
Beaudreau said the amount of time it takes Bureau of Land Management field offices to process and approve complete drilling applications dropped by 40 percent from 2006 to 2012, going from 127 to 77 days. The number of inspections completed by all BLM offices rose 73 over the same period, from 19,974 to 34,571.
Still, Beaudreau acknowledged, “There are opportunities for greater efficiencies.”
“The BLM has also completed a new comprehensive plan — the first ever — for the 23-million acre National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska, or NPR-A,” Beaudreau said. “The plan provides access to 72 percent of that area’s estimated oil potential and prevents conflicting land uses in an important east-west corridor that could be needed for pipeline infrastructure to eventually carry Chukchi Sea oil or gas production to the Trans-Alaska pipeline.”
Beaudreau defended Obama administration policies, maintaining that the Department of the Interior is “working to secure our energy future by ensuring that our domestic energy resources are safely and responsibly developed, and that the potential for clean energy development on our public lands and waters is realized. The Department, through its policies, priorities, and project work, has taken a balanced approach and it is an approach that works.”
Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), a nonpartisan organization formed to reduce America’s dependence on oil and advocate for comprehensive energy reform, noted in a report that while oil and gas production has increased under Obama, “significant oil and natural gas resources on federal lands, both onshore and offshore, remain unavailable for development due to statutory restrictions and bureaucratic inertia.”
Despite the overall national increase in production, the Energy Information Administration reported that oil production on federal land fell by 14 percent from 2010-2011.
“America has vast untapped energy resources but the Obama Administration has repeatedly blocked and delayed the development of energy on federal lands,” Hastings said.