Interior takes step toward oil, gas leases

The Interior Department on Friday announced the first step in planning new offshore oil and gas auctions.

The lease sales would be for oil and gas exploration in U.S. waters from 2017-2022.

Friday's "request for information" calls on stakeholders and interest groups to provide public comments on where across the outer continental shelf Interior should sell oil and gas leases for the five-year span.

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"The development of the next Five Year Program will be a thorough and open process that incorporates stakeholder input and uses the best available science to develop a proposed offshore oil and gas program that creates jobs and safely and responsibly meets the energy needs of the nation,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement Friday.

“Today marks the first step of engaging interested parties across the spectrum to balance the various uses and values inherent in managing the resources of federal offshore waters that belong to all Americans and future generations," she added.

The request, published in Friday's Federal Register, officially opens the books to a wide range of options. Interior must consider sales in all 20 outer continental shelf planning areas.

Prominent oil lobby American Petroleum Institute (API) is pressing the department to consider areas that are otherwise off limits.

"The department should thoroughly analyze the entire resource-rich areas of interest," API policy adviser Andy Radford said on a call with reporters Friday.

Radford added that Interior should "draft an expansive leasing plan that maintains current leasing areas and seeks to unlock new areas that are currently off-limits."

The API stressed that estimates from the International Energy Agency said if U.S. production plateaus, it will fall behind OPEC countries.

But opening up uncharted areas will surely receive push back from environmental groups.

After the Interior Department's announcement Friday, Oceana warned that it could mean opening up the Atlantic to offshore drilling, which many green groups oppose.

"We must transition to clean energy and stop expanding on the dirty practices that have fueled the current climate crisis," said Claire Douglass, Oceana's campaign director.

Interior said it will seek a wide array of input on the economic, social and environmental benefits of all the resources, and the possible impact of oil and gas exploration on marine, and human environments.

The new program also opens up the possibility that Interior will allow lease sales in Arctic waters.

Alaskan lawmakers and oil companies have continually pressed the administration on opening up the Arctic, and the Interior Department is currently working to publish draft rules establishing guidelines for companies in the Arctic.

But environmentalists have vehemently fought previous lease sales in typically uncharted regions.

“As the Obama administration plans our nation’s next five year offshore oil and gas program, it should determine not to hold any lease sales in the Arctic Ocean," Kristen Miller of the Alaska Wilderness League said.