Republicans Grill Obama Administration on Fracking, Offshore Lands

GOP lawmakers accuse administration of limiting use of public lands for energy.


House Republicans blasted the Obama administration for holding back the country’s domestic oil and gas development, accusing Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar of being disingenuous over the level of U.S. energy production on public lands.

During a hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee, lawmakers focused on two central issues regarding the Interior Department’s policies: potential regulation on hydraulic fracturing in the country’s shale reserves and the recently released five-year draft plan for offshore leasing. Republicans argued both would do more to keep the nation’s energy resources out of reach than to expand their use, as the administration claimed.

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“We will likely hear today that U.S. oil and natural gas production is at an all time high. Yet that is true only because of the actions and policies of past administrations—both Republican and Democrat—that allowed for the leasing and production of our energy resources on public lands,” said Washington Republican Rep. Doc Hastings. “We will not be able to continue to meet our country’s energy and economic needs if restrictive policies are imposed that lock-up our energy resources.”

In his testimony, Salazar insisted that the Obama administration has been working to increase domestic energy production. He says that the goal of the administration is to promote natural gas usage, and that on the offshore lands issue, it was working to “stand up the oil and gas industry” in the Gulf of Mexico and to procure additional lands for drilling in the Alaskan frontier.

“We are walking the walk, and the statistics prove it,” he said. “We’re producing more, and we are using less. And we’ve gotten to the point where for the first time in recent history, we are importing less than 50 percent of our oil from foreign countries.”

[Read: Keystone XL Pipeline Delay Complicates Obama’s Political Problems.]

Salazar told lawmakers that natural gas should be a bipartisan issue since the Obama administration is promoting the energy source.

However, he claimed that the process by which natural gas is produced—hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” as its more widely known—has become the “Achilles Heel” of the industry. The Interior Department is considering new ways of addressing public concern through regulation, he added.

GOP lawmakers were quick to point out the inconsistencies in the administration’s policy. Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert, for example, said that the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency were using “scare tactics” to push for regulation, to the detriment of the industry. Pressed repeatedly for examples, neither Salazar nor Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey were able to point to any specific incidences within the last 60 years since the technology has been used in which a citizen was hurt or became ill due to natural gas in water. Nor were they able to cite any specific scientific studies that documented such issues.

“I would say that the Solyndra affair has harmed more people than hydrofracking in the last 60 years,” said Louisiana Republican Rep. John Fleming, referring to the company that went bankrupt earlier this year after receiving a $535 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy.

[Read: Obama Has Not Learned From Solyndra Scandal.]

On the issue of offshore lands, panel chairman Hastings argued that the administration’s new proposal—which was released two years after previously planned—does nothing to expand offshore drilling but instead restricts it.

“The administration took an extra two years to offer less than what was originally proposed,” he said.

Virginia Republican Rep. Rob Wittman said he especially was disappointed that despite bipartisan, popular support within his state to move forward on drilling activities off the Virginian coast, the department indefinitely delayed the lease sale in its plan.

Salazar cited conflicts with the military’s operations in the state as the reason for the delay.