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Wasted energy

Forget offshore drilling. There's sex, lost billions and big conflicts of interest in the Interior Department.

September 17, 2008

House Democrats' push for expanded offshore oil and gas drilling was more about electoral positioning than drilling, aimed at convincing voters that the party shares their pain at the pump. In fact, increased drilling and exploration would have no short-term effect on prices and very little long-term impact. Federal legislators would be better off devising ways to get the government's full share of oil and gas royalties and cleaning up the Interior Department, including staffers' cozy personal -- and we mean cozy and personal -- relationships with industry representatives.

The legislation that the House passed Tuesday would expand drilling but would let states decide whether to permit it 50 miles offshore. Even if the bill ultimately fails, Democrats would be able to tell their constituents that they favored more offshore drilling but were blocked by the GOP. The Republicans, meanwhile, would be able to tell the story of how they killed the bill because they wanted more drilling than the opposition.

The bill contains a Christmas list of environmental provisions favored by Democrats, such as tax breaks for wind and solar energy funded by tax increases on oil companies. The bill also would increase the royalties the government collects on oil and gas leases. Actually getting the money is another matter. A report last week from the Government Accountability Office found that the Interior Department is so sloppy about monitoring oil and gas production that taxpayers might be losing out on billions of dollars in royalties.

The results of that study were released just two days after the Interior Department’s inspector general revealed that employees in charge of collecting certain royalties had for years socialized with and accepted improper gifts from oil company representatives, and had sex with them. The investigation also found cases of employees arranging sweetheart deals for energy companies and taking outside employment with them. To its credit, the drilling bill would make it a felony for oil companies holding leases to offer gifts to government employees, but the employees already were forbidden to accept the gifts, which didn't stop them.

Now Congress is considering expanding the duties that the Interior Department has mismanaged for years, under an energy bill that's simply bad policy to begin with. That's the real story voters should hear.

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