Editorial: OCS leasing hope

July 4, 2005
With an initiative that didn’t make it into comprehensive energy legislation, the US Congress late in June took its most important step yet toward a solution to what should be a top-priority energy problem.

With an initiative that didn’t make it into comprehensive energy legislation, the US Congress late in June took its most important step yet toward a solution to what should be a top-priority energy problem. The step was a proposal to let states opt out of moratoriums on oil and gas leasing of federal waters off their coasts. It was important partly because it offered hope that the US someday will end its costly refusal to explore and develop hydrocarbon resources off the East and West Coasts and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. It was important also because it came from gas-consuming states newly awakened to the importance of domestic production.

The proposal took the form of a Senate energy bill amendment by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) with support from Sen. John Warner (R-Va.).

“We talk a lot about gasoline at the pump, but by far the bigger problem for millions of American blue-collar workers, for millions of American farmers, and for millions of American homeowners is the high price of natural gas,” Alexander said. After a nod to conservation, he added: “If we think American jobs are going to stay in the United States when the price is $7 and headed up, when the price in Canada is $5.50, in the United Kingdom it is $5.15, and in Turkey it is $2.65, we are kidding ourselves. We are saying let’s don’t look for natural gas at home.”


Alexander thus gave US energy problems perspective they haven’t always received amid congressional desperation to get a bill passed. But because too many coastal-state lawmakers, driven by antique fears about drilling and production, remain locked into antileasing positions, whatever energy bill this Congress might ultimately pass won’t do all it should about supply. To avoid a filibuster that would have stalled the Senate bill, Alexander withdrew the amendment, which also would have increased coastal state claims on revenue from leasing and production.

To the credit of lawmakers, the House and Senate bills don’t ignore access issues. They both, for example, try to streamline federal leasing and permitting onshore. But the biggest potential lies in the federal offshore, and the bills leave most of it locked away.

It was nevertheless encouraging that Alexander’s state-option amendment received a thorough airing and apparently strong support. “I believe if we had an opportunity to come to a vote,” Alexander said, “we would likely have a majority vote-more than 50 votes for the idea of giving more individual states the right to drill for natural gas offshore, the same right that four states already have.”

Besides raising core issues many lawmakers would prefer to dodge, the amendment forced diehard opponents to articulate their sincere but unwarranted concerns.

“The geology shows there is not very much oil and gas off Florida,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), citing “all kinds of dry holes over the last half-century.” Geology shows no such thing, and producers have drilled dry holes off Texas and Louisiana, too. Nelson went on to allege that leasing and drilling off Florida would “despoil a $50-billion/year tourism industry that depends on pristine beaches.” Modern offshore activity threatens pristine beaches far less than do the ships that steam near Florida’s coasts every day.

Damage repair

Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) argued that states with OCS production off their shores want money from increased revenue-sharing to repair coastline damage, declaring, “That is the slippery slope down which we in Florida do not want to go.” His allusion was to a campaign for revenue-sharing by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) as part of her state’s battle against coastal erosion. The problem is serious, and Louisiana is indeed searching for federal assistance to help solve it. The erosion, though, results mainly from the construction of levees along the Mississippi River, not from offshore drilling and production, as Martinez implied.

The Floridians and other Senate drilling opponents aren’t budging. They’ve prevailed again. But price distress brings the costly folly of their arguments into increasingly clear focus. Consumers in growing numbers see that price relief depends on domestic production and that production can occur safely. As Alexander and backers of his amendment showed, constructive change on OCS leasing is no longer too much to hope.