The Outer Continental Shelf presents a tremendous opportunity to expand domestic oil and natural gas production with little or no downside. Extra energy is badly needed, and the risk of producing it has been greatly reduced. Over the past few months, high energy prices have shifted the tide in favor of drilling in restricted areas.

The public supports offshore drilling by 2-to-1 margins. In July, President Bush lifted the executive moratorium on offshore drilling while urging Congress to do the same. Now, the U.S. Minerals Management Services is doing its part by commencing the process to develop a new Five Year Leasing Plan for the Outer Continental Shelf.

And in approximately two short weeks we could be celebrating Energy Freedom Day. That is to say, even if Congress does not pass a bill that affirmatively opens up these offshore areas, it could accomplish the same end by simply letting the existing restrictions lapse. Of course, it will take time for the Interior Department to lease these areas and for the energy companies to develop them, but the process can at least begin.

In addition to making restricted areas available, a large hurdle exists: Environmental litigation. After all, what good is making all these areas available if they are so burdened with red tape that it would be years before companies can even begin the process of extracting these valuable resources?

Environmental radicals have protested practically every new lease for oil production. Let’s take a look at a few examples:

  1. The Chukchi Sea, an area off the coast of Alaska with estimated 15 billion barrels of oil and 77 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the Interior Department. The Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and environmental groups challenged all 487 leases in the Chukchi Sea before they were even issued.
  2. The Beaufort Sea, also off the coast of Alaska. After Shell Exploration & Production Co. spent more than $80 million for offshore leases in the Beaufort Sea and the U.S. Mineral Management Service approved 12 leases, environmental radicals sued and obtained a court order ceasing drilling activity in April 2007. In total, environmental groups have challenged every single one of the 787 leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.
  3. The same group of environmentalists challenged the whole five-year OCS leasing schedule from 2007-2012. The lawsuit, which challenges all existing and future leases, is still pending when we could have been developing these lands.
  4. These next two points come directly from Heritage senior policy analyst Ben Lieberman’ss recent op-ed. A lease sale was recently held in New Mexico involving 78 parcels. Environmentalists immediately protested all 78. These protests are one of the first, but by no means the last step that green groups can take to try to stop oil and natural gas production.
  5. Energy production in northwestern Colorado was shut down, thanks to activists exploiting the nearly impossible paperwork requirements of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This time, it’s the black-footed ferret, but more than 1,000 other listed species means many leases are in or near the potential habitat for at least one of them. Whether shutting down a significant part of Colorado’s energy production really benefits the ferrets is an open question, but useful or not, such shutdowns are common. And the ESA is only one of many tools in the anti-energy activists’ arsenal.

This is by no means a new trick. Environmental groups have been thwarting attempts to explore new areas with valuable energy sources for years. It was more accepted when gas prices were $1, but now Americans are suffering from high energy prices and environmental groups are relentless in their attempts to halt new exploration. Sure, we shouldn’t compromise the environment for hasty drilling, but the environmental risks of offshore drilling have been significantly minimized. Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ) summarizes it appropriately by saying:

Environmental protections are necessary. Yet, legal challenges to oil and gas leases, aimed at blocking production, can drag on for years. As Congress has done in the past, we must impose reasonable limits on such environmental challenges. During the oil embargo of the 1970s, which put our national and economic security at risk, Congress allowed the waiver of environmental regulations, thus enabling 800 miles of pipeline to be built in Alaska within three years. In 2006, on a bipartisan basis, Congress again enacted a similar waiver to ensure that environmentalists did not block efforts to secure our border. This waiver will not cast aside our nation’s environmental laws, but instead prevent their abuse by radicals seeking to halt all American energy production.

Americans want American-made energy to power our economy, create jobs, and carry us into the future. Energy or drilling legislation that fails to contain limits on environmental litigation will also fail to provide American consumers any real relief.