Environmental Activists, Not Oil Companies, Blocking Domestic Drilling

It’s true: Hundreds of promising oil leases on federal lands are being stonewalled, contributing to lower supplies and higher prices at the pump. But the blame lies not with the oil companies, but with environmental activists.

Much of America’s energy potential lies underneath federally controlled lands and waters, but some of those areas are off-limits to oil exploration and drilling. In response to high gasoline prices, several Washington lawmakers want to open these areas, including some of the 85 percent of our territorial waters that are restricted, as well as a small portion of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Polls show that the public endorses this step, but the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate, fearing a loss of support from anti-drilling environmental activists, has thus far blocked these measures.

Their argument? The oil companies don’t need new leases in restricted areas because they aren’t diligently pursuing leases in areas that are currently open to them. “Why should we be giving big oil additional leases when they have 68 million acres under lease already that they’re not drilling on right now?” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked.

Sounds damning. But the charge of industry dawdling is totally without support, and proponents of the “use it or lose it” bills that seek to punish delays have yet to produce a single credible example of an oil company dragging its feet on a green-lighted project.

In many cases, there isn’t any energy to be found. Dry holes happen, and just because the law allows drilling somewhere is no guarantee of success. However, plenty of leases are sitting atop oil that’s likely to remain underground for years, and perhaps permanently. The culprits are environmental activists and their delaying tactics, including several instances in the past few weeks alone.

For example, a lease sale was recently held in New Mexico involving 78 parcels. Environmentalists immediately protested all 78. These protests are one of the first, but by no means the last step that green groups can take to try to stop oil and natural gas production. If past is prologue, subsequent delays and litigation will prevent this energy from reaching the market by many years, and may kill off these projects entirely.

At the same time, energy production in northwestern Colorado was shut down, thanks to activists exploiting the nearly impossible paperwork requirements of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This time, it’s the black-footed ferret, but more than 1,000 other listed species means many leases are in or near the potential habitat for at least one of them. Whether shutting down a significant part of Colorado’s energy production really benefits the ferrets is an open question, but useful or not, such shutdowns are common. And the ESA is only one of many tools in the anti-energy activists’ arsenal.

In each case, the oil companies are the ones fighting delays, not causing them. Such battles are becoming more common.

"Protests of leases have risen from 167 per year from 1997-2000 to 1,180 per year from 2001-2007 — a 706 percent increase," according to Daniel Kish, vice president of the Institute for Energy Research. "Unless this is stopped, any efforts to access land for energy will be meaningless."

Thus, we have an anti-energy double whammy when it comes to domestic production. There are vast energy-rich areas that are completely off limits, and there are others that are subject to spools of red tape that environmental activists can use to stall or even preclude production.

But rather then streamline these provisions, along with opening up the restricted areas, Democrats and their don’t-drill-anywhere allies would rather spin conspiracy theories about big oil sitting on their rights — and ignore the real reason that more domestic energy isn’t coming online.

Ben Lieberman is senior policy analyst in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).