Offshore drilling plan to go ahead: Interior Dept

A general view shows the artificial Mittelplate drilling and production island for oil in the Wattenmeer tidelands off the coast of the German state of Schleswig-Holstein north-west of Cuxhaven July 12, 2007. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A proposal issued in the final days of the Bush administration to expand offshore drilling in previously banned areas will move forward under the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, an Interior Department spokesman told Reuters on Wednesday.

Shortly after being sworn in on Tuesday, Obama ordered all federal agencies and departments to halt pending regulations until they can be reviewed by incoming staff.

Hugh Vickery, a department spokesman, said the department has been notified by the White House that it will be able to proceed with a proposed draft of a five-year plan to lease areas in the Atlantic and Pacific waters for oil and natural gas drilling.

The preliminary plan would authorize 31 energy exploration lease sales between 2010 and 2015 for tracts along the east coast and off the coasts of Alaska and California.

When the plan was unveiled last week, the department said it would provide the Obama administration with the option to begin leasing recently opened areas in 2010, two years before the current leasing plan is set to end.

The department issued a notice Wednesday requesting public comments on the plan. The comment period will be open for 60 days. After that, the Obama administration would have to decide whether to proceed with an official proposal, make changes or scrap it.

Both presidential and congressional bans on drilling in most U.S. waters ended last year.

The Interior Department estimates that the Outer Continental Shelf holds 86 billion barrels of oil and 420 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that have yet to be discovered. It is possible U.S. offshore areas, which have not been explored in 25 years, could contain more oil and gas.

Separately, Vickery said the department’s plan to develop oil shale fields in the western United States would also continue.

Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe and Tom Doggett; Editing by Christian Wiessner