Oil and gas leasing programs are among the initiatives that could get slashed if Congress doesn’t stop automatic spending cuts set to begin March 1, a top congressional Democrat warned Tuesday.
The warning from Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. came as the Obama administration stepped up pressure on lawmakers to agree to a deal to avert the across-the-board spending cuts. Flanked by firefighters and other emergency responders at the White House on Tuesday morning, President Barack Obama appealed to Congress to pass a short-term fix, lest the cuts jeopardize “investments in education, health care and national defense.”
But those aren’t the only investments and programs at risk, Markey suggests. An 8.2 percent spending cut at the Interior Department would translate to fewer offshore drilling inspectors and fewer onshore drilling leases, Markey said. Permitting of oil and gas projects on public lands and waters also could slow down, Markey speculated.
“Republicans say they want to drill, baby, drill,” Markey said, invoking the GOP chant that caught on after oil price spikes in 2008. “Yet by letting the sequester go forward, Republicans in Congress will put the brakes on oil and gas development on public lands in America and reduce our ability to protect against another offshore drilling disaster.”
According to an analysis prepared by Democratic staff on the House Natural Resources Committee, the sequester could pare some $6 million from the budget of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement that oversees offshore drilling, while eliminating 52 employees.
“Such cuts would not only prevent BSEE from improving the oversight and safety of offshore drilling, they would cut critical resources that could make offshore drilling less safe,” the report concludes.
At the same time, spending cuts at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management could hinder the government’s ability to lease new offshore areas for energy development. The bureau is tasked with vetting companies’ broad drilling blueprints — the first step in launching exploratory drilling on leased offshore tracts.
In a letter to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the Interior Department stressed that “efforts to expedite processing of offshore oil and gas permitting in the Gulf of Mexico would be thwarted by delays, putting at risk some of the 550 exploration plans or development coordination documents” the bureau expects to review this year.
Onshore, there could be permit slowdowns too, as the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management loses more than $92 million. The Interior Department has said that could translate into 300 fewer onshore oil and gas leases in Western states such as Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, effectively “delaying prospective production from those lease tracts.”
Of course, the dire warnings about the effect of the sequester may never be realized. And even if the automatic cuts happen, they may be short lived.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Erskine Bowles, the White House Chief of Staff under former President Bill Clinton, predicts that Congress won’t reach a deal to avert the reductions immediately, but the cuts will eventually be reversed because of the inconvenience to Americans.