Government issues draft offshore drilling plan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A preliminary proposal was issued on Friday by the U.S. Minerals Management Service to hold oil and natural gas lease sales in coastal areas where drilling was, until recently, banned.

The draft plan proposes 31 energy exploration lease sales between 2010 and 2015 for areas on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf, including tracts along the East Coast and off the coasts of Alaska and California.

The agency will be accepting public comments on the plan for 60 days beginning January 21. At the end of the public comment period it will be up to President-elect Barack Obama’s administration to decide whether to move forward with the proposed leasing plan, make changes, or scrap it entirely.

Obama has said he supports expanding offshore drilling as a part of a comprehensive energy plan.

That sentiment was also expressed by his Interior Department Secretary-designee Ken Salazar. At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday, Salazar said he will consult with Congress and Obama as he decides how to handle offshore drilling.

“What we need is to have a thoughtful process as we go forward to make sure we’re doing the right thing in the OCS, and that it can be done in an environmentally safe way,” Salazar said.

The MMS is a part of the Interior Department.

The MMS said issuing the draft plan gives the Obama administration the option to begin a new five-year leasing plan that includes recently opened areas in 2010, two years before the current leasing plan is set to end.

“We’re basically giving the next Administration a two-year head start,” Minerals Management Service Director Randall Luthi said in a statement.

“This is a multistep, multiyear process with a full environmental review and several opportunities for input from the states, other government agencies and interested parties, and the general public.”

Offshore drilling was banned in most areas in the United States outside the Gulf of Mexico for more than 20 years until Congress allowed the prohibition to expire at the end of September, with the support of President George W. Bush and many Republicans.

Many Democrats have opposed expansion of offshore drilling, however, and some have called for reinstating the ban or placing more restrictions on drilling.

The MMS estimates that the Outer Continental Shelf holds 86 billion barrels of oil and 420 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Offshore areas could potentially contain much more oil and gas and have not been explored in 25 years.

Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; editing by Jim Marshall