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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Environmental and pro-drilling advocates pitched dueling messages about expanded offshore oil and natural gas production to the U.S. Interior Department on Monday, as the comment period on a Bush-era energy plan came to a close.
The draft five-year offshore drilling proposal offered in the last days of the Bush administration would allow drilling along the East Coast and off the coast of California.
Drilling was banned in most of the offshore areas of the United States outside the Gulf of Mexico for more than 20 years until Congress allowed the prohibition to expire last year.
Environmental groups and some lawmakers have raised concerns about the impact increased drilling would have on coastal areas.
The Alaska Wilderness League, along with about 20 other green groups, symbolically delivered comments to the department Monday from nearly 300,000 people opposing the proposed offshore leasing plan that would open much of the Arctic Ocean to drilling.
"We just wanted to let him know how many people there were across the country that were concerned about the proposed oil and gas development and the current oil and gas development that's going on in the Arctic," said Kristen Miller, government affairs director for the league.
Miller's group is pushing to halt all drilling in the Arctic Ocean until a comprehensive plan is developed to protect the area's fragile ecosystems.
Under U.S. President Barack Obama, the Interior Department extended the comment period for the draft drilling plan by 180 days. During that time the department held hearings throughout the country to gather public input on the proposal.
Supporters of expanded oil and natural gas production criticized the department for delaying a plan they say is essential to meeting U.S. energy needs.
The Institute for Energy Research submitted more than 13,000 comments Monday in support of the offshore plan.
"That plan was something that there was serious time spent on developing, making sure that it was done correctly. Now they've delayed it, which is in effect a de facto ban," said institute spokeswoman Laura Henderson.
Citing polls showing a majority of Americans support offshore drilling, Henderson said "those bans were lifted for a reason. They need to let people explore those areas."
The American Petroleum Institute also weighed in.
"It's time to end the delays," API President Jack Gerard said in a statement. "(The administration) must act now to ensure that America has the energy it needs today -- and in the future."
Despite calls for immediate action, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has signaled his department will release its proposals for a new plan in the next several months.
The Obama administration has said it supports offshore drilling as a part of a comprehensive energy strategy, but has stressed a clear commitment to moving the United States toward cleaner energy resources.
The department estimates that the Outer Continental Shelf holds 86 billion barrels of oil and 420 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that has yet to be discovered. Offshore areas could contain more oil and gas and have not been explored in 25 years.
Editing by Christian Wiessner