NOE: How to produce energy and jobs without all the waste

Simply issue drilling permits, and Gulf oil rigs will do the rest

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As news continues to break about the bankruptcy of the government-backed solar- panel manufacturer Solyndra LLC, much commentary has focused on who said what inside the ad- ministration prior to the company’s collapse. But the implosion of a company once touted as a symbol of the booming job creation that would accompany America’s energy future brings larger lessons about our country’s energy and economic needs.

Our country’s energy future hinges in large part on how we manage the gradual transition to a blended energy supply portfolio based in part on next-generation, sustainable energy sources such as solar, geothermal, wind and others that have yet to emerge. The question we need to ask ourselves as we undertake this long-term process is: What do Americans need now, and where can we find it?

Unfortunately, the administration seems inclined to duck that question, favoring poster-ready solutions like Solyndra over more pragmatic discussions about how best to use our country’s existing resources. Its reluctance is a shame, as it comes at the cost of unrealized energy production and forsaken American jobs - particularly in the Gulf of Mexico region.

How have administration energy policies - so friendly to unproven prospects like the solar-powered Solyndra - treated the proven assets we have in the Gulf of Mexico? Not quite as sunnily, to say the least. A host of new permitting requirements have been developed in the past 1 1/2 years for exploration and development of offshore resources in the Gulf. While meant to promote the safest and most environmentally friendly operations possible - goals heartily shared by industry, whose long-term viability depends on sustainable production - the process by which companies secure permits for exploration and production has become unpredictable and opaque.

While there is robust demand for drilling in the Gulf, the pace of issuing permits for new wells (5.2 per month) has slowed to a trickle not seen since energy demand nearly evaporated during the recessionary days of 2009. What this means in real-world terms is that it can take an operator three months to secure a permit for a new well - a time frame that is insufficient to satisfy demand. On top of that, the backlog of permits awaiting decisions within the Department of the Interior just reached its highest level since the Gulf spill 1 1/2 years ago.

According to the administration’s own Energy Information Administration (EIA), U.S. energy output is slated to decrease by 250,000 barrels per day per year under domestic energy production policies. EIA forecasts show Gulf production declining 14 percent both this year and next, a drop of approximately one-third of 2010 amounts by the end of 2012.

By the same token, our current energy policies have allowed a historic loss of drilling rigs to occur, jeopardizing our ability to produce our natural resources. Since 2001, 78 jack-up drilling rigs have left the Gulf, leaving 42 currently available. Thirteen rigs have left the Gulf since April 2010 alone. The departure of these high-technology, capital-intensive rigs means our country’s capacity to ramp up production likely has been curtailed for years to come.

The job losses associated with the administration’s reluctance to support offshore production are also severe. According to a study by IHS Global Insight, run by renowned energy analyst Daniel Yergin, “In 2012, the [Gulf oil and gas] industry could create 230,000 American jobs, generate more than $44 billion of U.S. [gross domestic product], contribute $12 billion in tax and royalty revenues, produce 150 million barrels of domestic oil, and reduce by $15 billion the amount the U.S. sends to foreign governments for imported oil.” The study also cites benefits outside of the Gulf, with one-third of new jobs generated in California, Florida, Illinois, Georgia and Pennsylvania.

There is one final lesson to be noted here. While the Solyndra collapse likely will end up costing the American taxpayers who helped fund the company’s expansion, production of our natural resources in the Gulf adds money to the U.S. Treasury - something you don’t see a lot these days. In 2008, the offshore industry paid $8.3 billion in royalties and $9.4 billion in bids on new leases. In 2010, the numbers fell sharply because of the spill and the drilling moratorium, with payments falling to $4 billion in royalties and just $979 million in lease bids. The outlook for 2011 revenues under the current pace of permitting is more on track with 2010 than 2008.

The future of U.S. energy supplies will no doubt hinge on developing resources that are only now emerging onto the scene. Today’s needs call for more tangible action. To boost jobs, energy supplies and U.S. Treasury revenue, the administration should prioritize improvement in the Gulf permitting regime rather than let energy policy be guided by politics.

Jim Noe is senior vice president, general counsel and chief compliance officer of Hercules Offshore Inc., the largest shallow-water drilling company in the Gulf of Mexico. He also is executive director of the Shallow Water Energy Security Coalition.

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