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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.