WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is asking Congress to shorten the time energy companies get to start drilling on public lands they lease, as part of the government's strategy to boost oil and gas production.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar pushed a series of measures Tuesday in testimony before a Senate panel considering drilling legislation. The proposals expanded on plans announced by President Barack Obama over the weekend to speed up drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, on Alaska's North Slope and off the Atlantic Coast.
The measures will not provide any relief from high gasoline prices, but the Obama administration and lawmakers want to send a message that they are doing something to ease the pain at the pump.
Republicans have responded by passing a series of bills in the House to expedite and expand offshore oil and gas drilling, and the Senate is scheduled to take up similar measures this week. Democrats, meanwhile, have focused on repealing $2 billion a year in tax breaks for the five biggest oil companies and have called on companies to drill where they hold leases now.
"Rising gas prices are putting an added strain on American families, and while there are no quick fixes to the problem, there are steps that we can take to secure America's energy future," Salazar said.
Salazar said that Congress should change the law to allow leases onshore to be shorter than 10 years to pressure companies to drill sooner. Currently, 41 million acres of public lands are leased, but only 12 million acres are producing oil and gas, Salazar said. Offshore, the Interior Department already has the ability to extend or shorten the length of a lease.
Republicans and Democrats from oil-producing states were skeptical of the administration's recommitment to drilling.
Salazar also asked Congress to extend the 30-day approval time for plans to explore for oil and gas to ensure they meet new safety requirements. Some lawmakers only saw that as another way to delay drilling that has been slow to restart after the spill.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., displayed a chart Tuesday showing government projections that oil production will decline. Some of that decline is due to the lapse in drilling that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP blowout and spill.
"The bottom line is we need to step it up, or these numbers are going to get worse, not better," she said.
Dina Cappiello can be reached at http://twitter.com/dinacappiello