Ben Lieberman

Post image for Moratorium Lifted, But Drilling Still Blocked

With much fanfare, the Obama administration has lifted its moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. But don’t expect much actual drilling any time soon, thanks to all of the administration’s other red tape strangling domestic oil and natural gas production.

Even before the April 20th Deepwater Horizon spill, the Obama administration had clamped down on new leasing on federally controlled offshore and onshore areas. In fact, 2009 saw less oil and gas leasing than in any year under Bush or Clinton, and 2010 was on track to be no better.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration Department of the Interior used the spill as an excuse to crack down further by imposing a six-month moratorium, until November 30th, on issuing any new deepwater drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico. For all practical purposes, the administration also put an end to nearly all shallow water drilling in the Gulf, as well as exploration activities off Alaska.

Studies estimating thousands of lost jobs as a consequence of the moratorium — not to mention strong bipartisan opposition from Louisiana’s Congressional delegation — made for bad politics as well as bad policy. Whether or not influenced by the upcoming elections, the Department of the Interior announced that the moratorium is being lifted more than a month ahead of time.

The moratorium is gone, but all the pre-spill hurdles are still in force. In addition, Secretary of the Interior Salazar announced several tough new provisions and stated that only those operators who “clear the higher bar can be allowed to resume.” Interior concedes that these new requirements “may delay development of some OCS oil and gas resources.” Additional delays piled onto a policy that had already ground drilling to a near halt is not good news for American energy production.

Notwithstanding the official end to the moratorium, the real test is whether and to what extent drilling activity resumes. The American people need more energy, not to mention the thousands of high paying jobs an expanded domestic oil and gas sector would bring. If 2010 goes into the books as the second year in a row of sharply curtailed domestic energy production, the new Congress should take a close look at reversing this worrisome trend.

The economic track record of the current administration and Congress is not a good one. Unemployment remains stubbornly high at nearly 10 percent, and many believe federal missteps prolonged the recession and are weakening the recovery. While things like ill-advised spending, Obamacare, and looming tax hikes are doing damage nationwide, a number of other federal measures have particularly burdened the American West, the region suffering with the highest unemployment rate in the country. The Senate and House Western Caucuses’ recent study, “The War on Western Jobs,” documents the host of environmental policies that have targeted the sectors crucial to the economies of Western states — especially energy production but also mining, logging, farming, and ranching.

It is important to note that the federal government controls the economic fate of western states to a greater extent than any other part of the country. The lands comprising 12 western states (Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, and Alaska) are nearly half owned by the federal government. More so than other regions, job losses in the West can be traced to federal policies.

The Obama administration’s attack on Western energy jobs began within weeks of taking power when the Department of the Interior revoked 77 oil and gas leases in Utah and halted new oil shale projects in Colorado. By the end of 2009, the administration had issued fewer onshore energy leases than in any year under Bush or Clinton, and the pace thus far in 2010 is no better. Throughout the West, vast energy-containing federal lands are currently off-limits, and the administration and Congress have sought to restrict access to millions of additional acres. Even where energy leasing is not explicitly prohibited, Obama’s regulators have imposed red tape and bureaucratic delays that have substantially limited it.

Beyond oil and gas, the administration has all but declared war on coal mining, which is particularly vital to Wyoming and Montana. The Environmental Protection Agency’s global warming regulations as well as many other anti-coal measures (including Boiler MACT, combustion byproducts, new National Ambient Air Quality Standards, others) bode ill for the future of western coal.

The threat of new energy taxes has only added to the chilling effect on Western investment in energy projects.

In addition to the impact on energy production, the federal government’s excessive ownership of land — as well as intrusive measures like the Endangered Species Act that target private property — is posing growing problems for other industries. Despite the West’s mineral wealth, mining jobs continue to decline. The same is true of logging. Farmers and ranchers also face a host of costly hurdles.

Instead of providing regulatory relief that could turn the region’s economy around, Congress has proposed new constraints like the sweeping Clean Water Restoration Act. This bill would essentially federalize land-use decisions on any property containing wetlands, and compounds the threat by defining wetlands so expansively so as to include almost everywhere. And the Obama Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service have issued new agency guidance for federal lands, which under the name of addressing global warming would further restrict access.

Granted, Washington’s control over western lands and the misuse of that control to curtail economic activity is not a new phenomenon, but the current administration and Congress have taken it to a new level.

The West’s economic pain has not been justified by environmental gain. Quite the contrary, Uncle Sam turns out to be a lousy landlord. For example, the forest fires that have become common in Western lands in recent years have mostly originated on federal lands, and not on privately-held forests which tend to be better managed against such risks. A less-intrusive federal approach could deliver both economic and environmental benefits.

The next Congress should have a long list of reforms on its agenda. The Western Caucuses’ report spells out what needs to be addressed to get the American West back on the path to prosperity.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s effort to regulate carbon dioxide as an air pollutant is currently garnering most of the attention from the agency’s critics, but it is far from the only problematic EPA regulation in the works. Another proposal that also deserves strong opposition is the agency’s attempt to label coal combustion byproducts (CCBs) as hazardous waste. Doing so is not only environmentally unnecessary but downright counterproductive, and would raise energy costs and kill jobs to boot.

Like several other Obama administration regulations, this extreme proposal goes well beyond anything contemplated under Bush or under Clinton. In fact, it was the Clinton administration EPA that concluded in 2000 that CCBs, chiefly the fly ash from burning coal to produce electricity, should be categorized as non-hazardous and handled in a manner not unlike municipal solid waste. The Obama administration has offered no convincing evidence that this determination was wrong and that CCBs pose a public health threat. Nonetheless, it is moving forward with the hazardous proposal.

A hazardous designation would not only raise CCB handling and disposal costs, but would put an end to their beneficial uses. Large volumes of fly ash are added to concrete, both stretching the supply of this ubiquitous construction material as well as improving its quality. Another kind of CCBs can be used in wallboard, taking the place of mined gypsum. Fully 44 percent of the 136 million tons of CCBs produced annually are put to good use, and the percentage has been growing. No actual problems have emerged with the use of recycled CCBs in these materials.

However, if EPA slaps the hazardous label — and attached stigma — on CCBs, such uses would very likely come to an end due to liability concerns — imagine the field day tort lawyers would have over supposedly toxic sidewalks and poisonous walls.

Thus, a hazardous designation would almost certainly preclude any productive uses of CCBs. As a consequence, more virgin concrete would have to be made, and more gypsum mined. All the attendant energy and other resource inputs as well as emissions associated with these processes would increase — a clear negative for the environment.

From the coal-fired utility standpoint, a hazardous listing would transform CCBs from a valuable byproduct to a costly liability. Many new disposal sites would have to be created and maintained. Half the nation’s electricity is generated from coal, thus the higher electricity generation costs would impact tens of millions of homeowners and businesses. Some coal-fired power plants would have to shut down completely – indeed, a hazardous designation for CCBs fits in perfectly with the Obama administration’s larger anti-coal agenda.

Employment would face a painful double whammy from a hazardous designation. The National Association of Manufacturers estimates that 2,000 of its member manufacturing companies may be involved in using CCBs in the products they make. For the rest, the resultant higher energy costs would further hamper competitiveness and growth. Either way, the rule would reduce manufacturing jobs.

Back in 2000, the EPA wisely concluded that it did “not wish to place any unnecessary barriers on the beneficial uses of these wastes, because they conserve natural resources, reduce disposal costs, and reduce the total amount of waste destined for disposal.” Too bad this kind of common sense has all but disappeared at the Obama EPA.