US Senate votes to extend OCS, oil shale moratoria

Nick Snow
Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Mar. 14 -- The US Senate voted Mar. 13 to extend moratoria on federal oil and gas leasing on most of the Outer Continental Shelf as well as on developing oil shale resources.

The actions came on a pair of amendments to the budget bill for fiscal year 2009. Both proposed establishing a deficit-neutral reserve fund to encourage consumers to buy more-efficient wood stoves and install smart electricity meters, and supporting carbon capture and storage from coal. But they differed in their treatment of OCS leasing expansion and oil shale resources in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.

The first amendment, submitted by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), deleted oil shale completely and limited OCS oil and gas development to areas not covered by congressional moratoria or presidential withdrawals. It passed by 56 to 43 votes.

Nelson proposed his amendment to head off one by Sen. LaMar Alexander (R-Tenn.), which was defeated by 51 to 47 votes despite Alexander's limiting new federal OCS leasing to tracts off Virginia. "That is the proverbial camel's nose under the tent and what we fight about each year: oil drilling off the coast," the Floridian said.

Alexander responded that Nelson's approach would strike provisions "which will tend to reduce the price of gasoline and reduce the price of natural gas and make us less dependent on people in other countries who are trying to kill us."

His oil shale provision would have overturned a moratorium enacted as part of the US Department of Interior's fiscal 2008 budget in December as part of the omnibus budget bill. This moratorium delays a program authorized under the 2005 Energy Policy Act.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-NM), the Energy and Natural Resources Committee's ranking minority member, said the oil shale program delay was "somebody in one of those states putting a moratorium on in appropriations with nobody around." He said, "This senator wasn't there. If I were there, it would not have happened. We would not have had a bill."

But Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) said the Alexander amendment overturning the oil shale moratorium should be defeated. "We have a thoughtful way to move forward with that program. This is putting the horse ahead of the cart. This is the wrong way to go," Salazar said.

In a statement after the Senate recessed for the day, Salazar said the US Bureau of Land Management "is rushing toward a commercial lease sale and the potential environmental impacts are unknown." He said, "Because of this uncertainty, we do not even know whether state and local government support a commercial lease sale."

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) opposed Alexander's proposal because of its OCS provision. "If we want to end our addiction and we care about prices, then don't do it by striking another vein, ultimately, of the same energy resource. We should do it by considering alternatives. This amendment does nothing about that but it does undermine the moratorium on the OCS," he said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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