Interior Secretary James Watt's rhetoric and actions run a high risk of slowing down energy development on public lands by threatening the basic pro-development consensus evolved the 1970s. Such a slowdown is clearly contrary to the administration's intent to accelerate the development of government-controlled energy resources.
Simply stated, the Reagan administration i merely continuing the policy established by the Carter regime. By the last '70s Outer Continental Shelf lease sales were coming off on schedule. Prior to the end of his term, Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus indicated his intention to offer 58 million OCS acres between 1980 and 1985 -- substantially more than had been leased in the previous 25 years. The Department of the Interior had established a five-year general coal lease sale schedule, and the first general sale in over a decade was held. A program was being developed for leasing federally owned oil shale and tar sands. The National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska was open for leasing for the first time. In short, energy development on federal lands was progressing rapidly and in an orderly fashion.
Why all the hue and cry now? Why have so many groups risen in protest this time?
To answer those questions, let's look at the events which led to a pro-development consensus. This consensus rests on three pilars.
First, most Americans find the nation's heavy dependence on imported oil unacceptable. The economic consequences of OPEC's 19-fold increase in the price of oil over eight years have had wide impact. In addition, few citizens are comfortable knowing the nation's security is dependent on unstable or unfriendly oil-exporting nations.
Second, most experts agree with Robert Nance, vice president of Shell Oil Co., who estimates that 70 percent of all future U.S. oil and gas will come from federally controlled lands. Specifically, three years offer potential for major new petroleum discoveries: the Outer Continental Shelf, Alaska and the Western Overthrust Belt along the Rocky Mountains. sMost of this land is under federal control.
Third, the complex procedural accommodations worked out during the '70s ensure interested parties that their concerns will be heard and considered. The laws, regulations and court decisions governing energy on federal lands are cumbersome, costly and sometimes maddening for those involved. However, the critically important accomplishment of this Byzantine web of procedural requirements is the opportunity it gives a broad range of interest groups to participate in government decision-making. It is this pillar which is threatened by Watt's actions.
The great danger to any policy in the American system is organized and energized oppostion. Time magazine (Aug. 3) quotes Watt as saying the reason environmentalists oppose him is that "they were quite surprised and upset when we did not consult them on decisions. But we didn't need to: we knew exactly what we wanted to do."
The procedural requirements ensconced in the laws, regulations and court decisions of the 1970s offer opposing lawyers a Chinese menu of opportunities for challenging federal energy development at every level. If state and local interests and environmental groups become convinced they are being denied their right to participate in the decision-making process, they will certainly see Secretary Watt in court on a continuing basis, and the movement generated by the trust of the past will cease.
Perhaps the saddest illustration of the costs of the deteriorating pro-development consensus has been the growing opposition to the Interior Department's proposal for accelerated Outer Continental Shelf leasing. The new accelerated leasing program was designed with two prime purposes in mind: first, to allow the nation to search for giant new oil fields in the most rapid way possible, and second, to ensure that if oil was found it would be obtained with the least possible environmental impact.
To date, the Department of the Interior has been distinctly unsuccessful in explaining the accelerated leasing program. Environmentalists have consistently misunderstood what is being proposed. False rumors, such as the claim that a billion acres would be leased in five years, have created a climate of mistrust.
The nation cannot afford to have accelerated Outer Continental Shelf leasing fail because of lack of faith.
It is time for both sides to pause and reconsider their positions. Secretary Watt must be willing to live with some of the disorderly and cumbersome procedural requirements because they ensure broad participation. His opponents must not let anger cloud their judgment. In fact, rapid energy development and environmental protection of federal lands are interests which can be accomodated.
If the minimum pro-development consensus is not to be lost, Secretary Watt must recognize the danger inherent in his recent actions. He must demonstrate a willingness to provide for broad participation in decision-making or his actions will block the achievement of both his goals and those of the Reagan administration.