The Obama administration on Tuesday released its first five-year offshore-drilling plan, which would open up the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and the Cook Inlet off Alaska as well as more areas in the Gulf of Mexico, including in the eastern, central, and western parts of the Gulf.
The Interior Department’s proposed Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2012 to 2017 would open up more than 75 percent of potential resources through 15 lease sales in six offshore areas.
“This five-year program will make available for development more than three-quarters of undiscovered oil and gas resources estimated on the OCS, including frontier areas such as the Arctic, where we must proceed cautiously, safely, and based on the best science available,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.
Specifically, those areas include five annual lease sales to begin in the fall of 2012 in the western Gulf of Mexico; five annual lease sales beginning in the spring of 2013 in the central Gulf; and two lease sales in 2014 and 2016 in the eastern Gulf that are not under congressional moratorium.
Off the coast of Alaska, the Interior proposal calls for holding one lease sale in 2015 in the Beaufort Sea, one lease sale in 2016 in the Chukchi Sea, and one special-interest sale in the Cook Inlet.
“We’re encouraged by the Alaska sales," said Robert Dillon, spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "But the hurdle we’ve had to overcome is the permitting process. So that will be the deciding factor in production—how quickly and thoroughly those permits can be produced. You want to do it right, but you shouldn’t have to wait five years for permits.”
The Interior’s plan marks the Obama administration’s first long-term blueprint for offshore drilling. By expanding drilling off the coast of Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico, where drilling is already ongoing, but not aggressively opening up other areas such as the Atlantic Ocean, President Obama is trying to strike a delicate balance between appeasing drilling proponents and angering environmentalists and drilling opponents.
Still, the plan has already drawn critics from both sides.
Environmentalists questioned the opening of areas off the coast of Alaska, as Coast Guard officials and others have often warned that the area is not prepared for an offshore oil spill.
“Opening additional areas of drilling in the Arctic when we so clearly lack adequate response capabilities just confirms that we have apparently learned nothing from the worst offshore oil spill in our nation’s history," Michael Conathan, director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress, said in an e-mailed statement. "As tragic as the Deepwater Horizon disaster was, we must recognize that it occurred in relatively benign environmental conditions. That will not be the case with any spill in the Arctic.”
Meanwhile, drilling proponents questioned the plan’s scope.
Erik Milito, group director of upstream and industry operations at the American Petroleum Institute, said that the plan is “a good first step” but that it is too limited. “This is a missed opportunity to open additional areas that could have helped address rising energy demand, create American jobs, and reduce the federal deficit,” he said in a statement, urging the administration to reconsider its exclusion of areas off Virginia and elsewhere along the Atlantic coast.
Coral Davenport contributed