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Obama Eyes Energy Development in Drilling Plan; Opponents Point to Alternatives

March 31, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown gets two views on how President Obama's new plan for coastal oil and gas drilling could affect U.S. energy policy and the environment from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Maryland Sen. Benjamin Cardin.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we hear first from the man who put together the plan for the president, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Welcome to you.

KEN SALAZAR, U.S. interior secretary: Thank you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president had said some tough decisions had to be made. How much of a shift in thinking does this represent?

KEN SALAZAR: It’s a new direction for our country. The president knows that this is not the panacea for our energy independence, but it is a part of our energy portfolio for the future.

And the new direction essentially takes us forward to a balanced approach, where we are moving forward with conservation in areas like Bristol Bay in Alaska, and also moving forward with development in select areas. So, it’s a balanced approach to meeting the energy needs of the country and providing us the energy security for the nation.

JEFFREY BROWN: But one that, certainly, many people will see as a shift in approach for this president.

We heard that Greenpeace — certainly, that quote suggests it. The man says, “a betrayal of the people who voted for the president’s vision of a clean-energy future.”

KEN SALAZAR: Well, with all due respect, I think they’re wrong. The fact of the matter is that what the president has said all along is that we need to have a comprehensive energy plan for the nation.

And, within that comprehensive energy plan, we need to make sure that we are getting to energy independence, that we’re protecting our planet from the dangers of pollution, and that we’re — we’re creating millions of jobs here in America. So, we’re going to do that with renewable energies, with solar, with wind, with geothermal, nuclear.

But there’s also a place there for oil and gas production. We get — just can’t turn off the oil and gas at this point in time. So, it’s a balanced and a very thoughtful approach that the president announced today.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, when you think about the place that drill — offshore drilling has, how do you decide on the particular places that will now be allowed? What are — what is the scientific criteria that allows it in one place, but not in another place?

KEN SALAZAR: Jeff, there are a number of factors, but, specifically, when you look at the Gulf Coast of Mexico, it’s a place where we have most of the known resource for oil and gas. About a third of the domestically produced oil and gas comes from the Gulf of Mexico. We know for the plates are.

And, so, it’s not that difficult to say that’s a place where we ought to go ahead and — and support production. And that’s what we have done in this plan. When you look at the Pacific, there are important wildlife refuges along the coast. All the states are opposed to drilling, and so that’s why we’re in the drilling in the Pacific. It’s a place where we’re conserving.

Alaska is more complicated, and the Arctic is more complicated, so we’re going to take a thoughtful approach to develop the science before we move forward in the Chukchi and the Beaufort seas up in the north.

And, along the Atlantic, the North Atlantic is also a very special place with great marine fisheries and other values there, so that’s going to be off-limits as well. And along the Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic, you have states like Virginia that are very supportive of offshore drilling. And so we’re going to examine that as a possibility.

So, this is a balanced plan. It’s a plan that takes into account the differences that exist in each one of the areas off the coasts of America. It’s 1.75 billion acres that we’re dealing with here. And I would say that this is a good balance between conservation and development that gives us the energy security that we need.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the points of contention, of course, has always been how much oil there actually is in some of these places.

You mentioned the Gulf of Mexico. That’s one place where it may be well known, other areas less well known. And some of the studies, the estimates that I have seen are quite out of date, I gather.

Do you feel that — well, how much do you feel is there, and how much would it represent for the nation’s energy future? How much difference would it make?

KEN SALAZAR: You know, Jeff, the areas that we are opening up, we believe, can provide about 10 percent of the energy needs of America, but the reality of it is that it’s not the panacea, and it’s not going to get us energy independence. We cannot drill our way to energy independence.

And the fact of the matter is, along the Atlantic, we still have to gather much information before we move forward with any kind of drilling program. Even on the Virginia lease sale, there is an environmental impact statement that’s going to have to be prepared to determine whether or not leasing can move forward there.

And, so, people ought to know that we’re moving forward with an approach that is going to be based on science and is going to protect the coastlines and the environmental values of this country. That is foremost in our minds as we move forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: But 10 percent, do you think it’s as high as that, that — that could come from this?

KEN SALAZAR: The expansions can provide about 10 percent more for the domestic oil energy production part of our consumption that — what we have in the past.

It’s a significant addition, but, still, Jeff, it’s important to remember, two-thirds of our energy is imported from foreign countries today. And so this is not going to turn off the spigot from OPEC, but it will help us move forward in that direction.

Another just quick clarification from your announcement, the moratorium that was spoken about is not a moratorium that exists, because that was lifted by the last Congress, lifted by the president. There’s only one place with a moratorium. And that’s in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. All the rest of the ocean is totally wide open.

And so what we did is, we basically crafted a plan that said it’s appropriate to drill in some places and to explore in some places. There are other places that are too special, and we need to protect them. So, it’s about conservation, as well as about development.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president framed this, you have sat here and framed this as part of a larger energy strategy. Now, that’s going to be tough to get the votes for a larger energy bill. And it looks as though you might need Republican help for something like that.

Is there a political calculation in today’s announcement to perhaps help you woo some of that kind of support?

KEN SALAZAR: The answer to that is no. The — we are basically just carrying out our responsibilities under the authority that the executive branch has with respect to the Outer Continental Shelf. And those are authorities that the president and the Department of Interior exercise.

There is, separate and apart from this, our efforts to develop a comprehensive energy bill for the nation. And that is something where we have a bipartisan group of senators that include Senator Kerry and Senator Graham and Senator Lieberman, who are helping us move forward to see how we can move forward to energy independence, to create jobs here in America, and also how we create a better environment and cleaner air for our planet.

So, those efforts are under way. But they are separate from what we are doing today here.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what’s the timeline here? We mentioned that some things could happen fairly quickly, but, in your best-case scenario, what — is this a matter of years, a few years, a lot of years? What — what happens next?

KEN SALAZAR: Jeff, in the Gulf of Mexico, we’re moving forward. And so you will see development there, as we have seen for the last 20 years. Much of our resource — much of our energy comes from the Gulf.

In the Atlantic, we will know a lot more within a couple years, as well as in the Arctic. And the Pacific is off-limits. So, this is an unfolding issue, because what we need to do is to make sure that decisions that are made are made based on science and based on the best available information that we have.

And, right now, we don’t have it. Along the Atlantic, all the information is 30 years old. So, it’s been a big debate, without really knowing what the facts are. And at least the American people are — are due the — the statement or the reality of the facts with respect to what’s on the ground.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, thank you very much.

KEN SALAZAR: Thank you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today’s announcement did somewhat twist the usual politics on its head, as a number of Republicans came out with at least guarded support.

We heard earlier from Florida Governor Crist. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the move — quote — “a step in the right direction, but a small one that leaves enormous amounts of American energy off limits. And the proof of the administration’s announcement will be in the implementation.”

The strongest opposition, as we have heard, came from some of the president’s usual allies in the environmental community and from a number of Democrats in Congress.

One, Senate — Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, joins me now.

And, Senator, welcome to you.

SEN. BENJAMIN CARDIN, D-Md.: It’s good to be with you.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is your chief objection to this?

SEN. BENJAMIN CARDIN: Well, I think Secretary Salazar is right. There are places that are too special to risk offshore drilling.

I’m disappointed that he didn’t include the Mid-Atlantic, didn’t include the Chesapeake Bay, didn’t include Assateague, and the valuable resources that we have there. That’s equally important to the Pacific. And I was disappointed that that risk now is greater.

JEFFREY BROWN: He did talk about these studies that are to come, that there are years of looking at this and kind of weighing it. Do you think that is enough that might, in the end, prevent drilling? Or does it look to you like this is now going to go forward?

SEN. BENJAMIN CARDIN: No, I — we need to very much look at the impact that a spill could have on the economy of the Mid-Atlantic.

We’re talking about the fishing industry. We’re talking about watermen. We’re talking about tourism. We’re talking about property owners. We’re — it could have a major impact on the economy of the Mid-Atlantic. And I hope that the type of environmental review that the administration is talking about will point that out.

And, As Secretary Salazar just pointed out, we don’t even know what the reserves are there. I mean, we’re talking about a minuscule amount of oil, and the risks here are great.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, you talk about a major impact on the economy. He and others talk about an impact in terms of creating jobs.

SEN. BENJAMIN CARDIN: I want to create jobs through the energy sector, too. I want to have clean energy. I want to see us do renewables. I want to see us invest in nuclear energy. And we have plenty of land that is currently available for oil. So, I just think the risks here are just too great.

JEFFREY BROWN: You talk about supporting the president’s call for a kind of comprehensive energy plan. So, does it become a question of what — what we mean by comprehensive? I mean, would you like to take offshore drilling off the table altogether?

SEN. BENJAMIN CARDIN: Well, we — we do offshore drilling today.

I don’t think the — the new areas that we’re talking about will produce enough additional oil, either in the short or medium term, to really deal with our energy needs. We could do a much better job on energy conservation. Renewables are very, very important.

Nuclear is an area that’s not only important in the midterm, but long term. So I think there are many other options available. And, quite frankly, expanding offshore oil sites, when you already have tens of millions of acres currently available to the oil industry for exploration that they’re not using, to me, is something that really will not help a comprehensive energy policy for this country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another argument that the president was putting forward today was on national security grounds. He made this announcement at Andrews Air Force Base. He talked about oil security as a national security issue, an unusual setting that some noted for something like this.

What’s your response to that as a — as a reason to look hard at this and perhaps go ahead in some areas?

SEN. BENJAMIN CARDIN: Well, I think the president’s absolutely right about energy being a national security issue.

We need to become energy-independent. We know how to get there. We’re not going to get there by drilling. We’re not going to get there by oil. We have to have alternative fuels, and we have to use less energy in this country.

And, by the way, that will not only help our national security. It will create jobs in America. Other countries are doing this much more aggressively in wind and solar and nuclear. We need to create jobs here in America. And, by the way, we also have responsibilities on the environment to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. And more oil won’t help us accomplish that goal either.

JEFFREY BROWN: I think you — I think you heard me ask the secretary about a possible political calculation, weighing this into the larger energy legislation or a bill that may be coming.

Do you see a calculation here by the president, in terms of trying to woo some Republican support for that larger picture?

SEN. BENJAMIN CARDIN: I don’t think opening up offshore drilling is going to help get a comprehensive energy bill through the United States Senate or the Congress. So, I don’t think it will be helpful in the bottom line in crafting a comprehensive bill that can enjoy broad support.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what do you see going forward? Do you expect strong opposition or legal challenges from the states in the courts? What do you see?

SEN. BENJAMIN CARDIN: Well, we certainly want to see the president’s specific proposals. The — the administration has promised there would be environmental sensitivity. We want to see what he’s talking about by that.

So, quite frankly, we have major concerns about opening up offshore drilling that could affect my state, the state of Maryland, and our surrounding areas. We’re told that we’re going to be protected. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that the people of our state, the people of our region, that their precious natural resources are protected.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, thank you very much.