U.S. Has Started Process to Sell New Offshore Drilling Leases, But Next President and Congress Could Stop It

October 21, 2008 - 6:02 PM
With the Sept. 30 expiration of a congressional ban on offshore oil drilling now passed, the U.S. government's Mineral Management Service (MMS) has begun preparation to lease offshore oil drilling permits to oil companies for portions of federal waters, Nicholas Pardi, a spokesman for the MMS, said.

Chevron Genesis oil rig platform in the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans, La. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

(CNSNews.com) - With the Sept. 30 expiration of a congressional ban on offshore oil drilling now passed, the U.S. government’s Mineral Management Service (MMS) has begun preparation to lease offshore oil drilling permits to oil companies for portions of federal waters, Nicholas Pardi, a spokesman for the MMS, told CNSNews.com on Tuesday.
 
Unless Congress or the next president intervenes, the MMS’s preparation – which includes environmental studies and periods for public comment – will be complete in the summer of 2010, at which time leases will be issued.
 
Democratic members of Congress and a spokesman for the environmentalist group the Sierra Club, however, have indicated to CNSNews.com that they think the expired offshore oil drilling ban will be partially restored in the less politically charged environment after the elections and long before a single lease is issued by the MMS.
 
On July 30, two weeks after President Bush lifted an 18-year presidential ban on offshore oil drilling, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne directed the MMS to take the first steps towards launching a five-year process mandated in a 1953 law – the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act – by which the government may lease its waters for oil exploration.
 
“The American people and the president want action, and this initiative can accelerate an offshore exploration and development program that can increase production from additional domestic energy resources,” said Kempthorne in a press statement on July 30.
 
When Kempthorne took that step in July, the 27-year-old congressional ban on offshore oil drilling was still in place, but Kempthorne said his department was acting in anticipation of the possibility that the ban would be lifted or expire.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.)

“The action could give the next administration a two-year head start in expanding energy production from federal offshore jurisdictions, including some areas where a congressional ban had prevented oil and gas development” said Kempthorne.
 
On Sept. 30, Congress allowed the ban, which proved to be highly unpopular with the majority of Americans, to expire.
 
Democratic congressmen and sources on Capitol Hill, however, indicated that they thought the threat of oil drilling was not imminent, and that the ban could be restored after the election without any drilling actually occurring.
 
“Nobody’s going to be drilling offshore in the next three months,” Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) told CNSNews.com at a Sept. 18 press conference.
 
Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, told CNSNews.com that his organization is depending on either Congress or the next president to at least partially restore the drilling bans before the MMS is ready to issue leases.
 
“When Congress allowed the ban to expire, the point was to leave it to the next Congress to deal with in a much less politically charged atmosphere and not right before an election,” said Dorner. “We expect that the issue will be addressed by the Congress and by the executive, depending on who the next president is.”
 
“Obviously our hope is that our next president is Obama, and obviously, we will be looking at expanded environmental majorities in the Congress,” Dorner told CNSNews.com. “We have high hopes about moving forward with clean energy and leaving this oil-centric model behind.”