House Republicans from Pennsylvania on Wednesday criticized the Interior Department’s proposed fall 2007 time table for leasing additional acreage in the natural gas-prone offshore area known as Lease 181 in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s “answer that 181 is going to start in 2007 is very distressing. Isn’t there anything we can do to move that puppy up?” asked Rep. Don Sherwood (R-PA) during a hearing of the House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Subcommittee on the department’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2007.

Under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which requires extensive public comment and environmental review of the agency’s leasing plans, “that’s the earliest time which we could do that,” Norton told House lawmakers.

“That’s two years before we even start the process,” said Rep. John Peterson (R-PA), who asked Norton what Congress could do to expedite the timing for additional leasing in the 181 area.

“Congress can move forward with legislation. I know there are some proposals to do that. They actually are fairly similar [to Interior’s] in that the proposals…open very much the same area that we have proposed in the five-year [leasing] plan,” Norton said. Peterson is among the lawmakers who have proposed legislation to open up more of the Outer Continental Shelf (CS) to exploration and development. His bill seeks to open the federal offshore region to natural gas development.

Interior in February released its five-year plan (2007-2012) for leasing in the OCS that would expand the boundaries of the Central Gulf of Mexico Planning Area closer to Florida, opening up about two million more offshore acres in Lease 181 sale area that are believed to contain significant natural gas resources.

Peterson asked Norton to reconcile the Bush administration’s policy of locking up 80% of the OCS energy resources. “Our country has had a gap between the reality of the safety of offshore oil and natural gas activities and the public perception,” she said. Norton noted that many still recall the oil spill off Santa Barbara, CA, in 1969 when they think of energy development.

The high natural gas prices have been “caused by three presidential moratoriums — by Bush 1, Clinton and Bush 2 — and a Congress who’s had their eyes shut to the future of this country,” Peterson said.

Sherwood appeared to put the blame on Florida, which has blocked efforts to drill anywhere near its shores. “They’re keeping us from getting natural gas that we need to run this country. I think that we need to put the heat on there…We’re fiddling while Rome burns,” he said.

“If we don’t change our natural gas policy [offshore], we’re going to lose” critical industries, such as the fertilizer and chemicals industries, Peterson noted. “We’re shooting ourselves in the foot very severely,” echoed Sherwood. “In the area of natural gas, I think our governance would get a very poor grade,” he told the House subcommittee.

“We have a significant problem that we are facing,” Norton agreed. But on the positive side, “we also have royalty relief that has been adopted and that was part of the Energy Policy Act [EPAct]…for deep gas in shallow water offshore.” Interior estimates that this geological layer in the Gulf region holds 55 Tcf of natural gas, according to the secretary.

Norton indicated one of the quickest sources of natural gas will be from the onshore, and that her department is taking steps to promote that development. “I applaud you onshore. But onshore, with twice the wells being drilled, we are not getting more gas because we’re in old fields that have been drilled and drilled,” Peterson said.

In the Rocky Mountain West, Sherwood said there was a “tremendous amount” of lease applications that needed to be approved now. As a result of additional funding in EPAct, “we are making very significant progress” in acting on these lease applications, Norton said.

In a related area, Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) questioned Norton about a published report that said biologists with the Bureau of Land Management were spending more time on processing lease applications as opposed to monitoring wildlife damage stemming from drilling operations. Having biologists involved with energy applications “makes sense and furthers the biology,” Norton said. She further noted that Interior has requested additional funding so that it can do more monitoring of drilling effects in 2007.

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