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Interior Dept. ramps up oil, renewables

By ROSALIE WESTENSKOW, UPI Energy Correspondent   |   March 17, 2009 at 4:58 PM   |   Comments

The U.S. Interior Department is expediting energy development across the country, from renewable resources to oil and gas drilling, Secretary Ken Salazar told senators Tuesday.

Conventional resources like oil will play a major role in the White House's energy policy, Salazar said, despite some recent reports that drilling for fossil fuels will decrease under the new administration.

"President Obama believes we need to move forward with a comprehensive energy plan," Salazar said. "Much of what we are still doing is continuing to develop oil and gas both on and offshore."

In the past seven weeks, the department has approved seven major oil and gas lease sales onshore, raising $33 million in sales and including more than 1 million acres of land, Salazar reported to the Senate Energy Committee. On Wednesday, the department is holding a lease sale for drilling rights on 34.6 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico.

A moratorium on offshore drilling, in place since 1990, prevented the department from taking similar actions in the past, but Congress allowed the ban to expire last September.

Salazar's action won praise from some lawmakers, including Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

"Oil and gas production in this country is expected to increase for the first time since 1991," she said.

Other proponents pointed to bolstered energy security and economic advantages.

"It's far more beneficial for us to increase our own oil and gas production and keep that money at home instead of sending it to foreign countries" to buy oil, said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.

Some lawmakers, though, discouraged the department from charging ahead with oil development too quickly, particularly because much of the land already available for drilling is not being used to its capacity.

For instance, The New York Times reported Monday that the number of oil and gas rigs being deployed for new energy development has plunged to 1,200 from 2,400 last summer. During the political debate that followed record-high gas prices in 2008, congressional Democrats frequently cited similar statistics, including the fact that only 33 million acres of the 41 million leased in offshore waters are currently producing oil.

It would be better to develop what's already leased, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said at Tuesday's hearing.

Those wary of oil drilling were happy to hear about the Interior Department's plans for renewable energy, though, including increased coordination among a number of federal agencies to speed the deployment of clean technologies.

The administration has formed a task force -- which includes Salazar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Jon Wellinghoff, head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission -- to identify renewable-energy "zones" on public land where projects can be sited. These zones will be areas with ample access to renewable resources, like wind or sunlight, where development won't cause environmental damage, disturb state parks or infringe on other important activities, Salazar said.

This integrated approach marks a shift in how the federal government handles renewable-energy development.

"In the past, we've had a helter-skelter approach to siting renewable-energy facilities," Salazar said.

That has led to a backlog in applications for energy projects, including 200 current proposals for solar energy plants.

The potential to produce energy on federally owned lands is enormous, said Dan Arvizu, director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, an arm of the Department of Energy.

If just 10 percent of the available resources are developed, photovoltaic solar plants could produce 140 gigawatts; wind power, 80 gigawatts and geothermal, at least 20 gigawatts, Arvizu said.

"Given that total U.S. electrical generation capacity is 1,088 gigawatts, you can begin to see the significance of renewable resources on public lands," Arvizu said.

Not everyone's hopeful renewable energy can make a dent in the country's foreign oil consumption, though, including Robert Bryce, author of the recently published book "Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of 'Energy Independence.'"

"The U.S. now has some 250 million motor vehicles, as well as millions of recreational boats and tens of thousands of aircraft," Bryce told senators Tuesday. "We cannot run them all on sun juice and sails. … We need oil, and we have to drill for it."

Some policymakers contested this statement, saying a future based on electric vehicles could utilize the power generated by renewables for transportation.

However, in order to get renewable energy up to scale, it will require using land that may already serve other equally important functions, said Joanna Prukop, cabinet secretary for New Mexico's Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

"Commercial-scale solar plants (for example) eliminate livestock production on that land … and disturb wildlife habitats," she said.

The federal Interior Department has taken other steps to encourage renewable-energy production. Monday night, Salazar signed a memorandum of understanding with FERC, agreeing to end bureaucratic feuds that have stopped offshore renewable-energy facilities in the past.

"We don't want to be tripping over each other," Salazar said. "We are ready to move forward with offshore wind."

--

(rwestenskow@upi.com)

Topics: Ken Salazar
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