- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2011

One year ago last week, President Obama lifted his moratorium on deepwater drilling that five months earlier had halted operations on 33 rigs producing energy in the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, the industry has worked tirelessly to comply with new federal regulations and permitting requirements, while independently developing and implementing operating practices designed to further enhance safety and environmental protection on deepwater rigs. Yet a full year after the moratorium was lifted, federal permitting for drilling in the Gulf continues to greatly lag behind America’s demand - and capacity - for domestic energy development.

Every day, thousands of Americans whose livelihoods depend on a healthy Gulf energy industry feel the impact of the Gulf slowdown through lost wages, delayed jobs and a general sense of unpredictability about the future of an industry they count on to put food on the table. Local, state and federal government budgets also feel the impact through decreased sales tax and royalty revenue. The Gulf energy industry stands ready and waiting to provide jobs to a nation desperately in need of them. It’s high time to put American energy back to work.

In the wake of the Gulf spill, industry and government have collaborated in an unprecedented effort to rethink and re-engineer safety and response procedures and capabilities in the Gulf of Mexico. Workers are ready to get back to work fueling this nation. The rest lies in the hands of the Department of the Interior, whose regulators verify compliance and issue permits for exploration and drilling operations. Unfortunately, this permitting process continues to move at a pace that does not reflect an industry’s capability to invest and create good-paying jobs.

Permits are essential to the industry’s viability. Since the deepwater moratorium was lifted, only 14 permits have been issued for unique new wells allowing operators to drill to full depth for the purpose of production. For such a capital-intensive industry, where each new deepwater drill ship costs about $1 billion and employs hundreds of workers, those 14 permits over an entire year are simply insufficient to meet production demand or even to keep rigs in the Gulf. Of the original 33 rigs affected by the moratorium, 10 have left the Gulf in favor of markets where permitting is more predictable and transparent. Given the time and expense required to move these floating factories, it’s unlikely they’ll return anytime soon.

The most glaring loss, however, is the significant job opportunities forsaken each and every day as the permitting slowdown lingers. A recent study by IHS CERA concluded that a more-efficient and timely permitting process could create more than 200,000 new jobs in the United States, one-third of which would be generated outside the Gulf region in states like California, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York. In today’s world, that amounts to a stimulus package in itself - and one that doesn’t require American taxpayers to foot the bill.

In fact, a healthy Gulf industry puts money back into the pockets of American taxpayers via revenue flows to the U.S. Treasury. The offshore industry paid $8.3 billion in royalties and $9.4 billion in new lease bids in 2008. In 2010, those numbers shrank to $4 billion in royalties and $979 million in lease bids. While the numbers for 2011 aren’t in yet, they’re likely on track with 2010 figures. Yet, according to the IHS CERA study, an industry operating under an improved permitting process could generate $12 billion in tax and royalty revenues by 2012.

The last ripple effect of the permitting slowdown may not pinch Americans today, but it has the potential to hit our pocketbooks in the months and years to come. By allowing rigs to depart the Gulf and discouraging the large-scale investment necessary to meet our future energy needs, our government’s lack of urgency to restoring Gulf energy puts us all in a precarious position. If and when we decide to harness the true potential of the Gulf, we may find that the investment and equipment simply isn’t there. This translates to greater reliance on foreign suppliers, less control of our own energy supplies, and living in the hope that unforeseen political developments somewhere overseas don’t push prices at the pump even higher.

The Gulf has a lot to offer Americans: jobs, revenue and a valuable domestic energy supply. A multitude of American workers are motivated to get back to work today. Virtually every American stands to gain by encouraging investment in domestic energy production. It’s time for our government to clear the permitting bottlenecks for Gulf drilling activity and get this nation back to work with American energy.

Lori LeBlanc is the executive director of the Gulf Economic Survival Team.