- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2003

GOLDEN, Colo. — A congressional task force yesterday heard demands for more natural gas drilling at a hearing about how to combat a looming winter energy crunch.

“America is suffering from what is threatening to become a dangerous natural gas supply crisis,” said Rep. Barbara Cubin, Wyoming Republican, a member of the Speaker’s Task Force for Affordable Natural Gas.

“Natural gas prices reached record levels last winter and, as we reach the peak of the summer, storage levels once again remain below historic norms with gas prices at two to three times their historic average,” she said.

Most speakers at the hearing, held at the Colorado School of Mines, argued in favor of more drilling and noted how much natural gas is available, although environmentalists disagreed.

Federal lands contain enough natural gas to support current consumption for 100 million homes for 157 years, and that’s excluding park and wilderness lands, said Rep. Bob Beauprez, Colorado Republican.

But environmentalists have stymied drilling by filing lawsuits charging that drilling will spoil public lands and threaten animal species. As a result, the federal government finds itself encouraging the burning of natural gas but unable to keep up with growing demand.

“The federal government has encouraged the use of natural gas by all sectors of the economy, from industry to families, all the while limiting more and more areas available to explore for natural gas,” Mr. Beauprez said. “It brings to mind Third World countries run by tyrannical governments holding up humanitarian supplies of food from around the world while its people starve to death.”

Pete Morton, an economist with the Wilderness Society, argued that there are better ways to meet the natural-gas shortage than by more drilling, including creating more storage capacity, thus allowing more pumping at current sites.

“If you increase storage capacity, natural gas prices will go down,” Mr. Morton said.

He also argued for relying on conservation and other energy sources, such as wind and solar power, which leave little mark on the environment. He also disputed claims that environmentalists have delayed the permitting process, saying that the Bureau of Land Management approves most drilling permits within 30 days.

That statement drew hoots and laughter from the audience of about 150, most of whom appeared experienced in environmental foot-dragging. Other speakers tried to address Mr. Morton’s concerns by noting that recent advances in technology allow natural-gas drilling with a minimal impact on the environment.

David Hawk, director of energy and natural resources at J.R. Simplot Corp., said that it now takes just five years to reseed and reforest an area after drilling in a dry hole, 20 years if drillers strike gas.

“And that’s so you can’t even tell anyone was there,” he said.

The alternative is moving drilling operations overseas to South America, Africa, and other regions without strict American environmental laws.

“You’ll just push drilling to the Third World, where there are no checks on the environment,” Mr. Hawk said.

Mr. Morton argued that gas companies should still abide by those standards.

“I would implore our gas companies to export our environmental policies when they drill overseas,” he said.

The hearing was part of a fact-finding mission that saw task-force members fan out across the nation seeking solutions that would keep both natural gas supplies and prices stable. The panel is scheduled to deliver its report Sept. 30.

Already, last year’s record natural-gas prices have hurt businesses and consumers. Mr. Hawk said his company was forced to close an ammonia plant and a potato-processing plant recently in part because of high energy prices, at a cost of 800 jobs.

Consumers are already worried about the coming winter. Colorado state Rep. Diane Hoppe told the panel that she received a call from an elderly constituent during the height of this summer’s heat wave.

“[She] asked where she could buy an affordable electric heater,” Mrs. Hoppe said. “I asked why she would need a heater, and she said, ‘Well, I’ve heard that natural-gas prices are going to rise so high this winter that I won’t be able to afford to run my furnace.’”

Karen Rae, a Denver resident who served on former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer’s low-income energy task force, said she was sympathetic to concerns about the environment, to a point.

“If things don’t change, the prices will keep rising,” Mrs. Rae said. “I’m also an environmentalist. But if push comes to shove, I’ve got my kid to feed.”

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