Ken Salazar wants more drilling, but industry won't oblige?

See, it's like this. Far from being the obstructionist tree-hugger his critics accuse him of being, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar really, really wants to drill, baby, drill, for oil and gas on federal lands and offshore. He wants to drill the hell out of the place. But the energy companies are apparently full of slackers and greedheads who can't handle the leases they already have, most of which sit idle and undeveloped.

That's the inference one could draw, anyway, from a new report issued this week by Salazar's agency that contradicts the longstanding claim by Republicans that the Obama administration is standing in the way of domestic oil and gas exploration. According to the DOI's numbers, more than half of all federal acreage leased for oil and gas and more than two-thirds of offshore leases -- in excess of 56 million acres -- aren't being used by the companies who hold the leases.

"These lands and waters belong to the American people, and they expect those energy supplies to be developed in a timely and responsible manner and with a fair return to taxpayers," Salazar declared in a statement bruiting the report. "We will continue to encourage companies to diligently bring production online quickly and safely."

Analysts for the Wilderness Society and other environmental interests have complained for years that the cheap rate at which the government offers energy leases provides opportunities for speculation by companies, which can swap and sub-lease in a shadowy aftermarket with no particular urgency to develop the tracts involved. The DOI has sought to discourage speculation by increasing the cost of a minimum lease bid, particularly for offshore drilling; one study showed that deepwater leases attracting bids of less than $100 per acre result in virtually no active exploration.

Not surprisingly, energy industry critics have labeled the report "election year politics" and contend that government red tape and burdensome regulations are primarily responsible for the idle leases.

But while Salazar and the Obama administration may seem like unlikely boosters of the oil and gas industry, the report suggests otherwise. Last year, American natural gas production set new records while oil production was at its highest level in almost a decade. The refinery sector was a net exporter for the first time in sixty years. And, thanks largely to more efficient vehicles, the United States cut net oil imports by 10 percent, about a million barrels a day.

That's a lot of crude -- even with most of the leases on public lands not producing a single drop.

More from our Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "Ken Salazar gets lots of gas for rising gas prices."

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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