WASHINGTON The Obama administration on Saturday said it would again gauge interest from the oil and gas industry to explore federal waters off the Alaska coast, another bid to expand domestic energy production as gas prices soar and political pressure grows.
The Interior Department said it would again issue an official request for drilling interest in potential development leases in federal waters in Cook Inlet off the south-central coast of Alaska.
A federal lease sale for that area a year ago was canceled because of lack of interest. Cook Inlet, the channel that runs from the Anchorage area south to the Gulf of Alaska, is home to Alaska's oldest producing oil and gas basin.
The Interior Department has estimated the area could contain more than 1 billion barrels of oil and 1.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that is undiscovered and potentially recoverable. It has said at least one company has expressed interest, but has not identified it.
There were 13 exploration wells drilled in the federal waters in the Cook Inlet area between 1978 and 1985, but there are no active exploration or development facilities in the federal area now, according to the department.
The new request for interest is the first stage in a likely two-year process for selling the federal leases and comes as the Obama administration has been under pressure to find new domestic energy sources, an issue that has already had a big impact on the 2012 presidential campaign.
Republicans have repeatedly hammered President Barack Obama, a Democrat, over rising prices at the gas pump, which have jumped almost 30 cents in the past month, pushing the national average to $3.87 a gallon.
They have also criticized Obama for failing to approve the $7 billion Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL oil pipeline, which Republicans argue would create thousands of jobs and bolster the U.S. economic recovery.
Obama earlier this week pledged to speed up approval for the pipeline, though analysts have said it will not likely be completed until 2014 at the earliest.
(Reporting By Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Paul Simao)