Ken Salazar to drill-baby-drill crowd: Stop whining and get cracking

salazar portrait.jpg
Ken Salazar.
A year after being chastised for being too hasty in opening up offshore oil leases for exploration, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar was fielding questions from former colleagues in the Senate about why the administration isn't issuing more drilling permits to boost domestic production. But Salazar defended the administration's "safe and responsible" approach to energy production -- and pointed out a few uncomfortable facts about the current pace of drilling.

Much of the discussion had to do with whether Interior was being overly cautious in its "reforms" to offshore drilling. But it was a lack of caution in the Bush-era Minerals Management Service that led to rubber-stamping so many offshore rigs and contributed to last year's Deepwater Horizon debacle. And there's plenty of evidence that energy companies aren't developing the leases they already have, both on land and offshore.

"Last year, America produced more oil than at any time since 2003," Salazar told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee yesterday. (See the full text of his opening comments here.) "The Department continues to facilitate domestic production by issuing permits."

One of the problems, Salazar suggested, is that companies simply aren't moving forward on properties they've already leased. Drawing on a report his agency released a few weeks ago, Salazar noted that more than two-thirds of the offshore acres under lease are inactive, and production has yet to occur on more than half the leases on federal lands.

Critics of the administration's energy reforms say those figures are misleading, insisting that the stall in production has more to do with bureaucratic and environmental hurdles than any disinterest on the part of industry. But there are pieces missing from that contention, too. The Bureau of Land Management, for example, has no real data on what happens to leases after they're acquired, how they're traded or speculated upon among private interests, or how many are serious production targets -- as opposed to, say, investments or tax writeoffs. (For more on Interior's historic permit issues, see our profile of Salazar from 2009.)

The notion that a ramp-up of oil permits today will do anything to ease the average American's pain at the pump in three months, or even three years, is more than slightly delusional. But perhaps Salazar is the delusional one to think the public, or lawmakers, care about the facts of actual domestic production.

In his remarks yesterday, he also mentioned President Obama's call to cut tax breaks to the largest oil companies, at a time when they're reporting staggering profits. That initiative stalled yesterday in the Senate, around the same time that Salazar was making his case that he wasn't the one dragging his feet on energy production.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Ken Salazar, and the uncertainties of his quest for certainty."

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As President, I would end the decades-long national security emergency caused by our dependence on foreign oil (now ~60% of what we use) by instituting a crash program to design and build a national system of thorium and uranium fluoride molten salt reactors for power production (and the consumption of much so-called "nuclear waste"), a new electrical grid, and a system of high-speed trains and efficient hybrid passenger vehicles powered mostly by electricity from the grid.  That is fantasy; reality is that the US is paralyzed by the ideological blinders it has put on, which prevent us from even imagining undertaking a collective effort for the commonweal.  It is the Chinese who are building a national network of efficient high speed transport; we are left with a decaying and inefficient system of road transport and an air transport system already hard pressed by the cost of fuel.  It will be for other nations to develop safe, clean, cheap nuclear energy because even in the face of their determination that the burning of fossil fuels is causing global warming, people who identify themselves as environmentalists are largely scientifically illiterate, and reject the only technology with any reasonable prospect to wean our civilization from fossil fuels.  Current political thinking and debate about energy production is completely inadequate to effect the changes we must make.

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