Congress Unlikely to Weaken Leasing Bans, Senate Energy Chairman Says

Congress is unlikely to weaken offshore oil and gas leasing bans that cover most areas along the lower 48 states, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said today.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said that with minor exceptions, there has not been political will to end the restrictions. "I would doubt seriously that political will exists today," he said.

"Our time and efforts are better spent focusing on areas that are available in the Gulf of Mexico and focusing on alternatives to OCS production," he added during a hearing on outer continental shelf energy policy.

Last year, Congress passed and the president signed legislation that expands gulf leasing by over 8 million acres, including over 5 million acres that had been subject to executive branch and congressional drilling bans.

Currently, the overlapping bans essentially bar leasing off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and large areas in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

But Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), the committee's ranking member, has said the bill should have been only a first step toward other expansions of OCS leasing in areas where drilling is now banned.

Domenici said current leasing policy should be reconsidered. "This moratorium locks up our nation's resources and weakens our foreign policy, national security and economic strength," he said.

Several industry sectors are continuing to press for expanded leasing. One idea that surfaces repeatedly would allow states the ability to "opt-out" of leasing bans and receive a share of royalty payments. Several Virginia officials in particular have expressed support for leasing off their coast.

Stephen Allred, a high-level Interior Department official, said there is "great uncertainty" about the potential resources in areas where leasing is banned and that the last surveys and exploration occurred over two decades ago.

Citing older data, he said nearly 17.8 billion barrels of oil and 76.5 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas are off-limits. He cautioned that Interior lacks specific, reliable data on these off-limits areas. Industry officials often note that increased exploration can lead to increased resource estimates.

Overall, about 20 percent of undiscovered, technically recoverable resources have been covered by longstanding bans, Allred said.

Recently, President Bush lifted executive branch leasing bans that cover Alaska's Bristol Bay area, and also lifted bans on tracts that the recent gulf-centered leasing bill said must be made available.

Allred also said that exploration in the areas where it is currently banned could also boost resource estimates.

"You might find substantially more than what is in our assessment," he said.

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