July 23, 2008

Getting to Know Gas Drill Candidates Vary on Oil Options

By THOMAS B. LANGHORNE, Courier & Press staff writer 464-7432 or [email protected]

High gas prices have emerged as a pivotal issue in congressional races across the country, prompting Rep. Brad Ellsworth's challenger to travel to the northeast corner of Alaska in a search for answers.

Ellsworth, a first-term Democrat challenged by Republican Greg Goode, has called the question of whether to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Outer Continental Shelf "the focus of the day." He trumpets his support for legislation he says would encourage increased production in leased and available lands.

But Ellsworth and Goode disagree about what lands are available and how large a role domestic drilling should play in stemming America's energy crisis.

Goode says his July 14-17 trip to the refuge with six other GOP House challengers was intended to provide hard data to support his claim that the failure to drill for oil there is a key factor in high gas prices.

"We've been capping our domestic supplies for so long while demand continues to increase," he said. "I believe that announcing we're going to increase our domestic supply would have an immediate calming effect to the market which would result in lower gas prices."

Ellsworth points out that millions of acres of the Outer Continental Shelf already have been opened up for leasing and domestic exploration.

"But in many cases, the oil companies have chosen not to significantly increase their production there," according to a statement he released last week. "Instead, they are buying up leases to these lands, but not drilling.

".. I support domestic drilling as part of our energy solution, but we've got to be smart about it The oil companies should start by using the 68 million acres of federal land they already have under lease before asking us for more."

Ellsworth last week touted his support for the Drill Responsibly in Leased Lands Act. The bill, which ultimately failed, would have amended the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act of 1976 to require the Interior Department to speed up competitive leasing of oil and gas in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.

In a statement, Ellsworth said the National Petroleum Reserve "contains about 20 million acres of land in Northern Alaska that are already available for drilling, and could produce as much or more oil than (ANWR)."

Goode acknowledged National Petroleum Reserve lands "have been available for drilling, but they've been available for drilling since 1923."

"Drilling's not occurring there because it costs a tremendous upfront investment - tens to hundreds of millions of dollars - and it has been deemed for a long, long, long time that the companies cannot even get anything close to a return on the investment it would take to drill at those sites," he said. "We wouldn't expect any businessman or any entrepreneur in any type of field to say, 'Guess what. You're expected to step up to the plate so that you can lose money.' That's crazy.

"At the same time, we hear from the departments of Interior and Energy of the vast quantities of oil - American oil - available in places like ANWR. And obstructionists in Congress say 'no way.' It makes absolutely no sense to me."

While Ellsworth and Goode offer their competing visions on energy, their arguments are buttressed by a steady stream of attacks from the two major parties' committees.

Party players

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pointed out that the candidates' trip to Alaska was organized in part by Arctic Power, a pro-drilling group that advocates oil drilling there.

Goode said there is nothing untoward about drilling advocates helping organize a expedition by candidates who consulted energy industry experts and state and local officials in Alaska. He said he, not Arctic Power and not his campaign, paid for the Alaska trip.

Meanwhile, the National Republican Congressional Committee has sent out a steady stream of e-mails calling Ellsworth a lapdog of Democratic leaders who it says ignore public support for exploring offshore drilling.

Ellsworth hasn't mentioned the GOP congressional committee, but he sees a political component to the debate.

"It appears to be the greed of big oil companies and the political calculations of some politicians that are driving these proposals, not the best interests of families and small businesses," he wrote last week.

But Ellsworth will have considerably more money to spread his message over the campaign's final months. According to new Federal Election Commission reports, Ellsworth had $779,312 in the bank at the end of June. Goode had $50,214.

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