WASHINGTON–The U.S. Interior Department Thursday finalized plans to lease new tracts in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Alaska coast for offshore oil and natural-gas exploration in a move that fell short of industry hopes but also irked environmentalists.
The five-year plan, which generally follows a proposal made late last year, outlines the government’s lease objectives through 2017. It outlined 15 tracts for potential lease, 12 in the Gulf and three near Alaska.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters Thursday that the plan was “smart” and “aggressive.” He said the government will kick off the program this fall by auctioning acreage in the western Gulf for lease.
In Alaska, the department outlined a more plodding path. It pushed back a planned lease in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska’s northern coast to 2017, from 2015, pending further environmental review and studies of how oil and gas exploration might affect local tribes and marine life.
“There’s a lot of overlap” in the Beaufort between areas where oil and gas are thought to be located and areas needed for subsistence of local populations, said Tommy Beaudreau, director of the department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. “We want to give ourselves enough time to have a very rigorous process.”
Left off the leasing plan were large areas in the eastern Gulf of Mexico near Florida, where Congress has put drilling off limits, and areas off the Atlantic Coast, including near Virginia, where the administration previously considered offering tracts for lease.
Mr. Salazar said there was not enough information about the Atlantic to “make credible decisions” and noted that the department plans to allow seismic testing to evaluate resource potential there.
The plan does not include any new leases off the Pacific Coast, where local politicians have opposed drilling.
“Taking the entire East and West coasts off the table and further delaying Alaska sales clearly shows this Administration is not following its own advice to lessen our dependence on foreign sources of energy by bolstering production here at home,” said Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, a trade group.
Environmental groups blasted the decision to include Arctic Ocean leases in the plan before doing more scientific study. “Secretary Salazar talks about the need to gather information about the Arctic Ocean, but he is not walking the walk,” said Erik Grafe, an attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice.
The five-year plan includes 12 leases in the central and western Gulf, currently estimated to be the largest offshore oil and gas basin the U.S. Also included are small parts of the eastern Gulf in an area where Congress hasn’t placed a moratorium on drilling.
In Alaska, tracts in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas are on the list, as well as the Cook Inlet on the south side of the state.
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