Interior Atlantic coast energy plan draws fire from oil, gas industry

The Interior Department has informed Congress that it will take over two years to complete an environmental study needed to allow major seismic surveys of Atlantic coast oil-and-gas resources – a timeline that industry groups allege is too slow.

In an early February letter to House and Senate appropriators, Interior provides a timeline for completing a “programmatic environmental impact statement” on the effects of seismic testing and other assessment techniques.

It anticipates a “record of decision” – which is the final agency sign-off – in mid-April of 2012. Congress, in Interior’s fiscal year 2010 spending bill, required submission of a timeline to lawmakers.

Several companies have asked Interior for permission to conduct seismic testing off the Atlantic coast to update decades-old data on potential energy resources.

Interior, when announcing plans to conduct the environmental analysis, said it must be complete before the agency will sign off on any large-scale “geological and geophysical” activities.

Industry groups allege that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has consistently thwarted efforts to expand drilling on federal lands, both onshore and offshore.

Michael Whatley of the Consumer Energy Alliance, a pro-drilling group that has industry backing, said the timeline for the environmental analysis shows that oil-and-gas leasing off the Atlantic coast would be at least three to four years away.

Interior’s 2007-2012 offshore leasing plan calls for a lease sale off Virginia’s coast in 2011, although the sale could be delayed.

At any rate, Whatley said energy companies would not bid on tracts armed only with data gleaned from testing in the 1960s and 1970s, rather than information generated with modern three-dimensional seismic assessments.

“Absent information on what’s out there, who is going to bid? Nobody is going to participate in a lease sale unless they have got the seismic done,” said Whatley, the group’s vice president who served as an aide to Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and former Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.). He argued that Interior should have begun the analysis much sooner and could still accelerate the timeline.

Decades-old Atlantic and Pacific coast leasing bans lapsed in 2008. But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has not yet unveiled an offshore leasing plan that would supplant Bush-era policies.

For now, a spokesman for Interior’s Minerals Management Service said the 2011 Virginia lease sale – called Lease Sale 220 – remains scheduled.

“The geologic and geophysical data collection on the Atlantic [outer continental shelf] doesn't impact sale 220. Lease Sale 220 remains in the current 5-year program and is presently scheduled to be held in 2011,” spokesman Nicholas Pardi said in an email. “Lease Sale 220 for offshore Virginia is part of the comprehensive plan for exploration and production on the OCS that Interior Secretary Salazar is reviewing.”

“Secretary Salazar plans to announce this comprehensive proposal in the coming weeks,” he added.

Update: The Interior letter to appropriators also drew attacks Friday from a pro-industry group called the Institute for Energy Research, which echoed the Consumer Energy Alliance in alleging the timeline for Interior's analysis shows that any oil-and-gas exploration off the Atlantic coast would be at best years away.

“What this letter suggests is that Sec. Salazar isn’t looking to kick the can down the road when it comes to responsible offshore exploration – he’s looking to take that can, crush it, and then shut down the road altogether,” said Dan Kish, the group’s vice president, in a prepared statement.

This post was updated at 8:30 a.m.