Environmentalists look to Obama to limit drilling

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Environmentalists on Monday applauded an announcement that U.S. President-Elect Barack Obama would consider curtailing oil and gas drilling in some areas, and expressed hope future energy policy decisions would contain more environmental protections.

The co-chair of Obama’s transition team, John Podesta, said on Sunday that Obama probably would reverse an executive order by President George W. Bush allowing drilling in fragile lands in Utah.

Mike Daulton, legislative director of the National Audubon Society, said reversing the order would be a promising step away from the Bush administration’s energy policy, which he called too slanted toward the oil industry.

“The Bush Administration’s policies on drilling should be looked at line by line and there should be fundamental change,” Daulton said.

Environmental groups urged Obama to reconsider allowing drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off Alaska’s coast, home to whales, polar bears and other Artic animals. They also said they hoped Obama will restrict development in certain lands open to drilling in New Mexico and Colorado.

Dave Alberswerth, senior policy advisor at the Wilderness Society, said even if Obama does not issue executive orders reversing Bush policies, his administration could choose not to issue leases in certain areas or issue leases with restrictions.

“Given the fact that there’s this huge inventory of leased but undeveloped lands, you don’t need to rush into opening these sensitive areas to oil and gas development to meet America’s energy needs,” Alberswerth said.

Environmental groups also said they hoped Obama would revisit Bush’s offshore drilling policy.

Bush lifted the executive order banning drilling off U.S. coasts in July and Congress allowed the ban to expire in October. With the moratorium lifted, drilling can technically take place as close as three miles from U.S. coasts. Environmental groups hope Obama will provide more protection for the coasts.

The House of Representatives passed a comprehensive energy bill that allowed offshore drilling 50 miles from the east and west coasts if states permitted it and completely opening areas more than 100 miles from the coast to oil exploration.

“That is a compromise, one would imagine, a new administration would carefully examine,” said Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Members of the oil industry expressed concern about attempts to limit energy exploration on federal lands.

“We are hopeful that the new administration will be thoughtful enough to recognize that it would be a wrong to try and put back some of the drilling moratoria and deny American consumers access to their own oil and natural gas resources,” said Karen Matusic, spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute.

Matusic called oil and gas production on federal lands essential to meeting America’s energy demands and said the oil industry was committed to developing resources in environmentally sensitive way.

Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by David Gregorio