WASHINGTON The Obama administration will allow "robust oil and gas development" in the Gulf of Mexico starting in 2012, but will hold off on letting drillers into Arctic waters until more is known about spill response preparedness, according to a proposed five-year plan unveiled on Tuesday.
The Outer Continental Shelf leasing plan includes 15 potential lease sales over 2012-2017, including 12 in the Gulf of Mexico and three off the coast of Alaska.
"It will have an emphasis in the Gulf of Mexico," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at a meeting for the department's Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee. "We see robust oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico."
While the drilling plan will emphasize the Gulf, Salazar said the department also recognizes the Arctic as an area that is important for drilling.
The plan includes lease sales in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, but the areas would be opened up late in the five-year period to allow for more studies on spill response preparedness.
Royal Dutch Shell already holds leases in the Arctic it bought during the administration of George W. Bush, but legal and regulatory hurdles have prevented drilling so far.
If Shell gets the necessary approvals to begin drilling exploratory wells, Salazar said, the company's activities will help "with the development of additional information so we can make better informed decisions about the future."
"Exploration plans and exploratory wells are a very different reality to deal with than full-scale development," Salazar said.
Environmentalists have been critical of opening exploration in the Arctic, warning that the region's extreme climate would make an oil spill more complex and costly to clean up compared to an accident in the Gulf.
"Spill prevention, containment and response systems are not equipped to work in challenging Arctic conditions," said Athan Manuel, the Sierra Club's director of Lands Protection Program. "In short, when there is a spill in the Arctic, we will not be able to clean it up."
EAST COAST OFF LIMITS
The Obama administration previously announced plans to open some areas off the East Coast to drilling, but that proposal was scrapped after last year's BP oil spill that dumped millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
Representative Ed Markey, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, praised the plan for keeping the East Coast free of drilling.
"We still don't know the answers about the long-term effects of the BP oil spill on the fisheries of the Gulf, and East Coast fishermen would rather never even have to ask those types of questions about an Atlantic spill," he said in a release.
Since the BP accident, Republicans and oil state Democrats have complained that the Obama administration has needlessly pulled back on offshore drilling and taken actions they say sacrificed jobs and energy security.
Several of the Republican contenders for the presidential nomination have made increased domestic drilling a major part of their plans to bolster the economy.
The American Petroleum Institute called the administration's plan a good first step, but wanted additional areas opened.
(Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Alden Bentley and Andrea Evans)