Dems Oppose GOP Call for Increased Domestic Drilling

By Keriann Hopkins | July 7, 2008 | 8:33 PM EDT

( - Democratic senators are skeptical about new efforts by Republicans and the Bush administration to increase offshore drilling, despite a government report by the Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management showing that there are 139 billion barrels of oil in the United States (onshore and offshore combined).

The estimated oil deposits, which amount to more than the known oil reserves in Iran, Iraq, Russia, Nigeria, or Venezuela, should be largely ignored, according to some Democrats, who instead favor focusing domestic drilling efforts on lands already leased to oil companies.

"Given the 68 million acres of federal land currently under lease to oil companies that they are not exploring, I think they should start there-rather than to consider alternatives which are environmentally sensitive," Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) told Cybercast News Service on Wednesday.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) takes the same line:

"My thoughts right now are that the number one thing we can do is conservation, and I support the 'Use It or Lose It Provision,'" he told Cybercast News Service.

The Use it or Lose it Provision, also know as the Responsible Federal Oil and Gas Lease Act of 2008, was introduced June 12 and aims to compel oil and gas companies to produce on the 68 million acres of federal lands, both onshore and offshore, that are leased but sitting idle. According to the proposed legislation, oil companies must demonstrate that they are producing on the land or the price of their leases will increase.

Failure of understanding

In a letter to Congress on June 20, the American Petroleum Institute wrote that people who complain about "idle" leases don't understand the process involved in oil and natural gas exploration and production.

A company buys a lease because it believes there is a possibility the lease may yield enough oil or natural gas to justify the cost of the lease. But some leases turn out to be unproductive, API said.

Even where leases are productive, there is a "time-consuming" procedure (obtaining permits, for example) that must be followed before oil production can begin. And finally, if a company does not develop a lease within a certain period of time, it must return it to the federal government, forfeiting all its costs, API noted.

"Because a lease is not producing, critics say it is 'idle' when, in reality, much more often than not, it is being actively explored and developed," API wrote to lawmakers. (See letter)

Economic concerns

Other Democrats oppose drilling for environmental reasons. They also cite the potential damage to local economies.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told Cybercast News Service, "My state is very concerned about any attempt to drill offshore. We have miles of coastline that are very important to not only our environment, but to our economy, to our fishing industry, to our tourist industry, and to the health of our region. Any attempt by the federal government to undermine our economy that way will be met with a lot of resistance."

Another major concern among Democrats is the time it would take to develop domestic oil production.

"I also think we need to be honest with the American people," Durbin said. "If we made the decision today to drill offshore, it would be eight to14 years before the production and the net impact on the price of a gallon of gasoline would be negligible."

"Everyone's talking light years away," Murray said.

When asked about effective short-term solutions, Durbin said, "We've dealt with a number of ideas, including speculation, unreasonable profit-taking by the oil companies, releasing some of the oil from SPR (Strategic Petroleum Reserves). Those are some things that could have an impact immediately."

In regard to Republicans' call for increased domestic drilling, Durbin said, "I think this is an effort to try to appease the American people and their anger, instead of addressing the issue."

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