New energy plans at Interior

Americans have good reason to wonder what energy policy on public lands will look like under President Barack Obama and Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar.

There were a few hints last week, although Salazar didn’t reveal too much when he spoke to employees of the Department of Interior and then to the press.

One of the biggest questions is whether the Obama administration will allow more offshore exploration to proceed.

That became a big issue last summer in the midst of the presidential campaign, when gasoline topped $4 a gallon. Both Salazar and Obama initially expressed opposition to opening more areas of U.S. coastal water to offshore drilling, but both gradually softened in the face of polls showing overwhelming public support for more drilling.

Congress allowed the ban on offshore drilling to lapse in October. And, just before he left office, President George W. Bush began a process that could lead, in a few years, to more offshore drilling. The proposal was issued as a draft, meaning the new administration could reject it or significantly change it.

And Obama quickly put it on hold, along with dozens of other executive orders issued by Bush in final months of his administration.

But there are indications Obama and Salazar won’t seek to reinstate a total ban on offshore drilling. A Reuters news story late last week said the White House and the Interior Department have already decided to allow the Bush offshore leasing process to move forward for certain areas off the coast of Alaska.

Furthermore, Salazar said last week he planned to take a look at the Bush plan. And, while he indicated he would be receptive to scaling it back, he didn’t suggest he would abandon it entirely.

We certainly hope he doesn’t. We never believed that offshore drilling was the panacea for the nation’s energy woes when prices were hitting record highs last summer. But allowing more offshore production is one important way to move away from dependence on foreign oil.

And beginning the process now to authorize more leasing and drilling makes far more sense than waiting until the next energy crisis — which will come — and ramping up the program in an emergency.

It’s a safe guess that Bush’s end-of-tenure edict regarding leasing public lands for commercial oil shale development won’t find great support among this administration.

Salazar was, after all, one of the chief congressional critics of that decision, and with good reason.

As we have long argued, it’s reasonable to learn more about the viability of various oil shale
technologies before proceeding with commercial development. With that in mind, the Bureau of Land Management’s announcement earlier this month that it will lease additional research and development tracts for oil shale was very good news.

Salazar offered some welcome comments on other energy issues last week. Although acknowledging the need to address global warming and promote alternative energy, the head of the Interior Department also said, “We cannot move forward by turning off the lights and turning off coal-burning power plants.”

That appeared to be a frontal attack on some in the environmental community who want to block all new coal-fired electric plants. But it needed to be said, because coal remains one of our most abundant and accessible energy sources. Salazar said the focus should be on ways to reduce CO2 emissions from coal plants.

Both Obama and Salazar sounded pragmatic rather than ideologically dogmatic during their first days in office. We hope they remain that way, and don’t bow to the “lock it all up” crowd as they move forward on energy issues.


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