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

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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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast