WASHINGTON Even if Congress were to lift its 27-year offshore drilling ban tomorrow, it would take energy companies several years to explore for oil and natural gas off much of the U.S. coast, experts say.
Companies may not drill at all if they don't believe there are enough oil and gas deposits to justify the huge upfront costs involved in setting up drill platforms, laying underwater pipelines and creating other infrastructure, the experts say.
That means the economic benefits of drilling increased supply of oil and natural gas, lower prices at the gas pump, smaller utility bills and potentially thousands of new energy-related jobs are years away from materializing, if at all.
Andy Radford, a policy adviser with the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington-based lobbying group, estimated that it could take at least two to 10 years to produce oil or natural gas off the Jersey Shore once companies win federal offshore drilling leases.
"We have to walk before we can run in this case. We don't want to give people the sense that this is going to happen overnight," Radford said.
In July, President Bush lifted an 18-year drilling ban instituted by his father, saying America must increase its domestic supply of fuel. Bush urged Congress to end its drilling moratorium. Both bans forbid drilling in federal waters off the East and West coasts, and a portion of the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
Most congressional Democrats support the ban, saying they want to protect American beaches and coastal ecosystems from potential oil spills and other hazards. They want the U.S. to step up investment in renewable energy sources such as solar and wind and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.Process will take years
Setting aside the political debate, which will flare up once Congress returns in September, the path from lifting the moratorium to producing oil and gas is strewn with legal and environmental requirements that would take years to meet.
First the proposed leases must be included in a five-year plan of the U.S. Interior Department's Minerals Management Service.
Because the plan expires in 2012, new leases can't be considered until after that year, unless Congress says otherwise, Chris Oynes, head of the MMS offshore drilling office, said Friday.
Before the leases can be auctioned, the government has to conduct environmental studies to ensure that opening up the areas wouldn't result in ecological disaster. That process could take two years, Oynes said.
Then, companies probably would conduct new seismic surveys, because the last ones were done before 1981, to determine the size and location of oil and gas deposits. They would then have to get their production plans and other operational details, such as an oil-spill mitigation plan, approved by the government before they could begin work.
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