As a nation, we face a very grave energy dilemma. We've had the highest natural gas prices in the world for the last five years. Rising prices, coupled with our increased dependence on natural gas from politically unfriendly countries, has the potential to make us a second-rate county. In my view the price and availability of natural gas is a greater concern to America's economic future than global warming or terror or the two combined.

Currently there are two separate, but largely overlapping moratoria preventing energy exploration along more than 85 percent of the federal OCS. One is congressional - the result of a provision in an annual appropriations bill precluding the Department of the Interior from leasing offshore tracts for exploration. The other is presidential, first adopted in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush and later extended by Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. The current presidential ban, which President Bush could withdraw tomorrow, expires in 2012; the congressional ban, which I seek to lift, is up for review each year.

My legislation, the NEED (National Environment and Energy Development) Act - which I will be introducing in the weeks to come - will lift the congressional ban of natural gas exploration and leasing. My measure will provide states the right to drill off of their coasts; it will direct royalties to producing states, various environmental restoration reserves across the country, and to renewable energy research. The measure will also include strong labor provisions.

Natural gas is the mother's milk of manufacturing and processing and home heating and business operation in this country. It's been the fuel we've depended on, and as it becomes unaffordable to all of us, we're going to literally devastate the economic viability of many businesses, manufacturers and industries. They'll simply move offshore where gas is much cheaper. The U.S. was once the leader of the pack. But now, in the global economy in which we compete, if the current bans on developing deep sea American energy aren't lifted, we'll be just another dog in the pack.