By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said on Tuesday he will not lower royalty rates for offshore oil and gas lease sales "at this time" despite a recommendation from an advisory panel to do so.
Zinke cited the success of President Donald Trump's energy strategy as a reason for not adhering to the recommendation of his appointed Royalty Policy Committee, which in late February advised him to slash the royalty rate for offshore drilling by nearly one-third to 12.5 percent.
"Right now, we can maintain higher royalties from our offshore waters without compromising the record production and record exports our nation is experiencing," Zinke said.
The committee's late February recommendation to lower the royalty rate companies pay on petroleum produced in federal offshore waters to 12.5 percent from 18.75 percent was meant to encourage more U.S. energy production.
Democrats and environmental groups decried the recommendation as a giveaway to some of the most profitable companies in the world that would rob taxpayers of revenues.
Vincent DeVito, the chair of Zinke's Royalty Policy Committee, said Tuesday's decision reflected improving market conditions for the oil and gas industry.
Last month, oil and gas drillers bid on only a tiny fraction of Gulf of Mexico acreage offered in the largest lease sale in American history, which Zinke said would be a “bellwether” of industry demand in the region.
When asked about whether there was data supporting the policy committee's recommendation last month at a Senate hearing, Zinke said there was no data yet but there was an argument to be made for lowering the royalty rate.
(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; editing by Jonathan Oatis)