Thursday, February 12, 2009
HERE'S THE ultimate midnight regulation: On the very last day of the Bush administration, the Interior Department proposed a new five-year plan for oil and gas leasing on the outer continental shelf. All hearings and other meetings on the scope of the plan, which would have opened as much as 300 million acres of seafloor to drilling, were to be completed by March 23. On Tuesday, Ken Salazar, President Obama's interior secretary, pushed back the clock 180 days, imposing order on a messy process.
We applauded when the presidential and congressional moratoriums on drilling on the outer continental shelf were lifted last year. A nation that consumes 20 percent of the world's oil should be exploring its shores for fresh energy resources. But Mr. Bush's midnight maneuver would have auctioned oil and gas leases without regard to how they fit into a larger strategy for energy independence. More can be done on the shelf than punching for pools of oil to satisfy the inane "drill, baby, drill" mantra that masqueraded as Republican energy policy last summer.
Mr. Salazar's 180-day extension of the comment period is the first of four actions that he says will give him "sound information" on which to base a new offshore plan for the five years starting in 2012. He has directed the Minerals Management Service and the U.S. Geological Survey to round up all the information they have about offshore resources within 45 days. This will help the department determine where seismic tests should be conducted. Some of the data on the Atlantic are more than 30 years old.
The secretary will then conduct four regional meetings within 30 days of receiving that report to hear testimony on how best to proceed. Mr. Salazar has committed to issuing a final rule on offshore renewable energy resources "in the next few months." Developing plans to harness wind, wave and tidal energy offshore would make for a more balanced approach to energy independence. It would also have the advantage of complying with the law. Mr. Salazar helped to write a 2005 statute mandating that Interior issue regulations within nine months to guide the development of those offshore renewable energy sources, a requirement that the Bush administration ignored.
Mr. Salazar's announcement was also notable for what it didn't do. Much to the chagrin of some environmental advocates, it didn't take offshore drilling off the table. Nor did it cut oil and gas interests out of the discussion. That's as it should be. Until the United States gets most of its power from renewable sources, oil and gas will remain an integral part of the nation's energy mix.