- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Bush administration supports a bill that would let states keep a percentage of oil royalties as an incentive to allow new offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.

Legislation expected to be finalized this month would open 8 million acres for leases to drill for 1 billion barrels of oil and 5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

“The administration strongly opposes royalties on existing leases. But for new leases, that concept is being embraced,” Mr. Kempthorne told editors and reporters yesterday at The Washington Times.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican, would decrease the country’s dependence on foreign oil, a priority for the Bush administration, Mr. Kempthorne said.

Drilling for oil in the outer continental shelf would offset the dwindling production from onshore wells, he said.

All oil royalties currently go into the federal Treasury, but the Domenici bill would allow 37.5 percent to go to states. Mr. Kempthorne did not say what percentage the administration might support.

He said the Interior Department will issue a five-year plan for offshore drilling leases and environmental rules. The Domenici bill dedicates a percentage of royalties to state land- and water-conservation funds.

Hurricane-ravaged Louisiana could use the royalties for coastal restoration of natural storm buffers.

“Their natural line of defense, their fence, so to speak, is gone,” said Mr. Kempthorne, who recently toured Louisiana.

“I saw an entire grove of cypress dead from saltwater,” he said. The royalties “will have a very positive effect down there, I think it will be beneficial.”

Mr. Kempthorne, a former senator and governor of Idaho, was nominated by President Bush to replace Secretary Gale A. Norton in March, and was confirmed by the Senate on May 26.

With less than 30 months to serve out the Bush administration, Mr. Kempthorne said, “I won’t get a lot of warm-up pitches.”

He will spend much of that time implementing 80 tasks set forth in an energy policy act that Congress passed last year.

The Interior Department is responsible for overseeing one-third of the energy produced in the United States. With the cost of a barrel of oil at more than $70, “we need to lessen our dependence on foreign oil using on- and offshore drilling and renewable energy,” Mr. Kempthorne said.

The Interior Department also will work on the maintenance backlog in national parks. The Bush administration has allocated nearly $5 billion to reduce the backlog.

Reforming the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is also on Mr. Kempthorne’s agenda. He noted that fewer than a dozen of 1,300 species have been taken off the list since its inception more than 30 years ago.

“I believe we can make positive enhancements to the ESA by putting a greater emphasis on species recovery,” he said.

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