House GOP slams administration for limiting federal drilling

House Republicans on Thursday said the Obama administration's resource development policies have slowed economic progress by keeping public lands off limits to exploration.

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The stop-and-go oil and gas drilling on federally controlled Alaskan lands offers a stark contrast to the rush by firms to drill in North Dakota’s privately owned Bakken shale formation, said Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Energy and Power.

“The main difference between Alaska and North Dakota is that Alaska has far more areas that are federally owned and -controlled. And the Obama administration has substantially cut back on new energy leasing in these federal lands and offshore areas,” Whitfield said in his opening remarks. “North Dakota gives us a glimpse of what would be possible in many other parts of the country if only the feds took the handcuffs off.”

The hearing provided another setting for Republicans to lament what they see as Obama’s hard-line position against fossil fuels. They say Obama will slow an economic rebound by limiting oil and gas drilling on federal lands.

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Democrats have defended the Obama drilling policies for environmental reasons. They also say the president’s plans free up plenty of resources.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) argued at the Thursday hearing that domestic oil and gas output has increased every year under Obama, though he admitted that activity on private land has carried the bulk of that production.

Republicans and a handful of Democrats last week approved a bill that would nearly double the amount of offshore oil and gas leases Obama has proposed offering by opening Pacific and Atlantic coastal waters to drilling. That bill also would expedite Alaskan exploration compared with the Obama plan.

GOP House members have also pushed for more states’ rights when it comes to drilling off their coasts and within their borders.

The Obama administration needs to follow the North Dakota model, Whitfield said. He noted that state is in charge of permitting drilling operations within the Bakken formation, which has drawn significant interest from natural-gas companies.

The disparity between federal and private oil and gas production might have more to do with resource location than policy, witnesses said during the hearing.

The nation’s shale resource basins that have spurred a natural-gas boom are “largely located outside of federal lands,” Adam Sieminski, head of the Energy Information Administration, said Thursday.

Michael Nedd, assistant director of minerals and realty management with the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, agreed. “Most of the large plays are on private and state lands.”

But Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said there is nothing geologically unique to federal lands as compared to private areas. He contended that the federal government should open those lands to more exploration in case some yet-undiscovered resources sit below the surface.

Federal oil and natural gas has indeed languished in recent years, Sieminski said.

The 2010 BP explosion in the Gulf of Mexico set back federal oil production by eliminating one of the most fruitful federal oil reserves, Sieminski added. Oil production in those waters had reached about 2 million barrels per day before that incident, but sits under that figure now, he said.

Natural gas production on federal lands has also decreased every year since fiscal 2003, resulting in a 50 percent drop between that year and 2012. Sieminski partially attributed that to falling natural-gas prices that made drilling less attractive on federal lands and the more plentiful resources on private lands that have allowed production to rise for six years.