WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Tuesday overturned another Bush-era energy policy, setting aside a draft plan to allow drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
"To establish an orderly process that allows us to make wise decisions based on sound information, we need to set aside" the plan "and create our own timeline," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced in a statement.
Alleging that the Bush administration "had torpedoed" offshore renewable energy in favor of oil and natural gas, Salazar said he was extending the public comment period by 6 months.
"The additional time we are providing will give states, stakeholders, and affected communities the opportunity to provide input on the future of our offshore areas," he said.
Salazar also ordered Interior Department experts to compile a report on the Outer Continental Shelf's energy potential — not just oil and gas, but also renewables like wind and wave energy.
"In the biggest area that the Bush administration’s draft OCS plan proposes for oil and gas drilling — the Atlantic seaboard, from Maine to Florida — our data on available resources is very thin, and what little we have is twenty to thirty years old," he said. "We shouldn't make decisions to sell off taxpayer resources based on old information."
The Interior Department oversees 1.75 billion acres on the Outer Continental Shelf, an area that's about three fourths the size of the entire United States.
Environmentalists and some tourism-dependent coastal states oppose the drilling, citing the potential for spills and urging an emphasis on renewable energy instead. Energy companies counter that drilling has become safer over the years and that royalties from any finds would be in the billions of dollars.
"I intend to issue a final rulemaking ... in the coming months, so that potential developers know the rules of the road," Salazar said. "This rulemaking will allow us to move from the 'oil and gas only' approach of the previous administration to the comprehensive energy plan that we need."
"We need a new, comprehensive energy plan that takes us to the new energy frontier and secures our energy independence," he added. "We must embrace President Obama's vision of energy independence for the sake of our national security, our economic security, and our environmental security."
Moratorium ended last year
The Bush administration had authorized the Interior Department to open areas off both coasts to oil and gas drilling during a five-year period. That move came after a moratorium on drilling there expired last year. Offshore drilling is already allowed in the Gulf of Mexico.
Both Obama and Salazar have said that expanding offshore oil drilling should be worked out with Congress as part of a broad energy blueprint, and not independent action by the Interior Department.
The move comes a week after the Interior Department shelved energy leases on 130,000 acres near two national parks and other federally protected lands in Utah.
In Congress, Democrats have long wanted to rewrite the rules on royalties from offshore drilling, arguing that energy companies have been paying too little.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., praised the move as an end to "drill first and ask questions later".
"The tide has turned back towards reason and a comprehensive energy plan for our country that sees promise in the winds and the tides, not just in drills and rigs," added Markey, who chairs the select committee on energy independence and global warming.
But House Republicans last week urged Obama not to close areas off the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines.
"We respectfully urge that you allow the five-year offshore drilling plan to continue because it is vital to our economy," the lawmakers, led by House Republican leader John Boehner, said in a letter. "Our country needs to remain on the path to American energy independence, and we believe this is a critical and achievable goal."
Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the large oil companies, said Salazar's announcement "means that development of our offshore resources could be stalled indefinitely."
31 lease sales were proposed
The preliminary plan drawn up by the Bush administration would have authorized 31 energy exploration lease sales between 2010 and 2015 for tracts along the East Coast and off the coasts of Alaska and California.
The Republican lawmakers cited a study that concluded the untapped offshore oil and gas reserves would create more than 160,000 jobs by 2030 and provide the government with $1.7 trillion in royalties on the oil and gas drilled.
Congress last year failed to renew the long-standing moratorium on oil and gas exploration across 85 percent of the nation's Outer Continental Shelf, leaving all waters potentially open to drilling.
Then, four days before leaving office, officials in the Bush administration issued the draft plan, which called for energy leases in areas that until recently had been off limits for a quarter century.
The Interior Department estimates — using 30-year-old studies — that the offshore waters lifted from drilling bans last year contain at least 18 billion barrels of oil, about half of it off California.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report..