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Obama to expand oil, gas drilling off Alaska and in Gulf

The Obama administration cautiously offered up more areas in the Gulf of Mexico and off Alaska to oil and gas drilling, angering environmentalists while leaving Republicans unsatisfied.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Angering environmentalists while leaving Republicans unsatisfied, the Obama administration on Tuesday cautiously offered up more areas in the Gulf of Mexico and off Alaska's coast to oil and gas drilling.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar unveiled a proposal to hold 15 lease sales for areas in the Gulf of Mexico, including two in the eastern Gulf, and three off Alaska's coast in 2012-2017.

"This five-year program will make available for development more than three-quarters of undiscovered oil and gas resources estimated on the OCS (Outer Continental Shelf), including frontier areas such as the Arctic, where we must proceed cautiously," he said in a statement.

The sales off Alaska, where native groups and environmentalists have objected to drilling, would be the first since 2008. And they would be held late in the five-year timeframe to allow time for scientific evaluations in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, which Interior officials called a "frontier" for drilling.

They also would be targeted to avoid areas with cultural and environmental sensitivities, officials said.

In the western and central Gulf, by contrast, the proposal puts all unleased acreage up for sale.

"The approach we are taking there is a cautious one," Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said of the Arctic leases. "We are aware of the substantial issues associated with major production."

An environmentalist who served on the BP oil spill commission created by President Barack Obama questioned the approach.

"Green-lighting more oil drilling under inadequate safety measures is a reckless gamble we cannot afford," Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. "The President’s Oil Spill Commission put forth a gameplan to improve the industry’s safety, but it has yet to be realized. Congress has failed to pass a single law to better protect workers or the environment."

The announcement came on a day when a near-record storm was expected to pound the western Alaska coast. The focus was in the Bering Sea, but the National Weather Service said winds of 65 to 70 mph with gusts to 85 mph also were expected along the Chukchi Sea coast.

"How do you drill a relief well? How do you put a containment system in place in those conditions? It is a very challenging situation up there to say the least," said Marilyn Heiman, the Arctic Program Director for the Pew Environment Group.

But the plan also falls short of proposals passed in the House — and touted by Republicans running for president, who want to open up areas everywhere to drilling. They have accused the president of stifling American energy.

"No new drilling or new lease sales will occur during President Obama's term in office," predicted Republican Rep. Doc Hastings, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Hastings, who sponsored three measures that passed the House earlier this year to speed up drilling and open up areas along the East and West coast, Alaska and eastern Gulf to drilling.

"The Obama administration's draft plan places some of the most promising energy resources in the world off-limits," said Hastings.

The drilling plans are the latest iteration of Obama's strategy for energy production, which has continually shifted to account for political realities, high gasoline prices and environmental disasters, such as last year's Gulf oil spill.

Weeks before that disaster, the White House had talked of expanding offshore drilling off Alaska, in the Atlantic and throughout the eastern Gulf, in part to help move stalled climate-change legislation through Congress. It pulled back late last year after the blowout of the BP well.

In May, with Republicans in Congress passing bills to reopen and expand offshore drilling and with the public outraged over high gasoline prices, Obama directed his administration to extend existing leases and to hold more frequent sales in the federal petroleum reserve in Alaska.

Tuesday's proposal goes slightly further by putting parts of the Cook Inlet, Chukchi and Beaufort seas back up for sale. President George W. Bush had opened up those areas for drilling in 2008, as part of a proposal that included drilling off the West and East coasts, and in the eastern Gulf.

Obama scrapped drilling off Virginia in early 2010, barred drilling in Alaska's Bristol Bay and never considered drilling off the Pacific coast, where opposition is widespread.

Besides the Gulf and the Alaska leases, the proposal includes a sliver in the eastern Gulf about 150 miles off the Florida coast. The rest of the eastern Gulf is off limits due to a congressional moratorium.

Lawmakers from Alaska, who have pushed to tap its energy resources, hailed the plan as a positive step Tuesday.

But Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate energy panel, said the permitting process would ultimately determine the success of the lease sales.

Shell Oil Co. paid the federal government $2.1 billion for petroleum leases in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest shore in 2008, the last time federal waters in Alaska were auctioned off. But nearly four years later, the oil giant has yet to drill an exploratory well because of lawsuits brought by environmental groups and delays in its air pollution permit.

The company hopes to start drilling in 2012.