Obama back in treacherous political waters with new offshore drilling plan

The Interior Department on Tuesday announced a proposed five-year offshore oil-and-gas leasing plan that’s far less expansive than what the Obama administration envisioned before the BP oil spill.

The plan formalizes the White House’s retreat from opening areas off the Atlantic coast and deep into the eastern Gulf of Mexico, which was contemplated before the April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig.

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It remains to be seen whether the plan will hit a political sweet spot for the White House or alienate Obama’s allies heading into 2012. 

The administration’s Tuesday energy announcement arrives as President Obama’s overall energy agenda comes under the microscope.

The White House is weighing TransCanada Corp.’s application to build a major pipeline linking Alberta’s oil sands projects to Texas refineries, a plan that’s attracting intense lobbying from environmental groups battling the pipeline and major business groups pushing for its approval.

The oil-and-gas leasing plan’s scope is not a surprise: Interior officials announced they were scaling back the planned leasing expansion last December. 

But it’s nonetheless likely to fuel intense political criticism of the Obama administration’s energy agenda from congressional Republicans and GOP presidential hopefuls, who are calling for much wider drilling.

The House passed a GOP-led bill in May that would mandate a massive expansion of offshore oil-and-gas leasing, including wide areas off the Atlantic, Pacific and Alaskan coasts. The bill passed 243-179, with 21 Democrats in support.

In addition, some Republicans and industry officials are calling on the joint deficit supercommittee to open vast new areas to raise billions of dollars in new leasing revenues.

On Tuesday the administration drew immediate attacks from Republicans and oil industry groups that allege the plan is too modest, while several environmental groups bashed the proposal, alleging it courts environmental disaster in fragile Alaskan waters and elsewhere.

The draft plan envisions 10 total lease sales in the central and western Gulf of Mexico, which is already open to development, that would begin next year and would expand acreage available to oil companies. 

It includes two sales — in 2014 and 2016 — in eastern Gulf regions that aren’t off-limits.

The new proposal also calls for two sales in Arctic waters off Alaska’s northern coast, but they are not scheduled until 2015 and 2016, to allow further analysis of environmental and infrastructure needs in the fragile seas.

But it abandons plans for leasing off mid-Atlantic and southeastern states. It also scuttles plans to allow leasing in large eastern Gulf regions off Florida’s coast that are currently under a congressional ban.

President Obama had floated the idea of leasing these Atlantic and Gulf regions in the 2012-2017 timeframe in late March 2010, roughly three weeks before the BP spill began. 

Interior Department officials on Tuesday stressed that the 2012-2017 leasing plan provides major tracts for oil companies to buy leases, stating in a news release that it “makes more than 75 percent of undiscovered technically recoverable oil and gas resources estimated in federal offshore areas available for exploration and development.”

“Expanding safe and responsible oil and gas production from the [Outer Continental Shelf] is a key component of our comprehensive energy strategy to grow America’s energy economy, and will help us continue to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and create jobs here at home,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday in a news release.

But Rep. Doc HastingsRichard (Doc) Norman HastingsCongress just resolved a 20-year debate over Neolithic remains Boehner hires new press secretary GOP plots new course on Endangered Species Act reform MORE (R-Wash.), the House Natural Resources Committee chairman who has helped lead the House charge for wider drilling, bashed the proposal Tuesday.

He noted it does not offer Atlantic or Pacific coast lease sales even though the formal moratorium covering those areas lapsed in 2008.

“The president’s plan is to simply say no to new energy production and no to new American jobs created by new offshore drilling,” he said in a news release that was echoed by some other Republicans. “It’s a plan that is sending American jobs overseas, forfeiting new revenue and denying access to American energy that would lessen our dependence on hostile Middle Eastern oil.”

Oil industry groups chimed in with attacks of their own.

“This ill-conceived plan leaves us looking in the same areas we have looked for over a generation and would cast our energy reliability and security lot to the whims of other, often unfriendly nations,” said Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, weren’t happy either, albeit for different reasons.

Alaska Wilderness League Executive Director Cindy Shogan bashed plans for lease sales in Arctic waters in 2015 and 2016, despite Interior pledges to use the intervening years to study environmental and infrastructure issues.

“In the days that followed the Deepwater Horizon disaster, President Obama stood before the American people and promised safer, cleaner offshore drilling and a new way of making decisions about drilling. The headlong rush to drill in America’s Arctic Ocean laid out in today’s draft five-year program fails to meet these promises — and looks a lot like the fast and loose decisionmaking of the past,” Shogan said.

Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke — who served on the presidential panel to probe the BP spill — noted that the Gulf region is “struggling” to rebuild from the BP disaster.

She also criticized the planned leasing in Arctic seas, noting that the area is home to endangered species and difficult to access for cleanup crews in the event of a spill.

Not all the reaction was critical.

Alaska’s senators were glad that lease sales in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off the state’s northern coast were included.

The Obama administration has also recently taken steps toward allowing Shell Oil to drill exploratory wells on existing leases as soon as next year, although final approval has not been granted.

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiTrump budget includes proposal for US Consulate in Greenland Democrats worried about Trump's growing strength The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in MORE (R-Alaska) called the draft plan a “positive sign.”

“While the administration has not opened any new areas to leasing, I’m encouraged that they are moving forward with offering sales in both the Beaufort and Chukchi seas,” said Murkowski, the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

But she warned that “leasing is only half the story” and that “the permitting process will be the determining factor as to whether these lease sales are ultimately successful or not.”

New Jersey’s senators, meanwhile, praised the reaffirmation of the administration’s decision not to pursue leasing off the mid-Atlantic Coast.

“I am pleased that the administration recognizes that allowing oil drilling near the Jersey Shore is simply too big a risk to the health of our economy, our environment and our families,” Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezMenendez calls for 'Marie Yovanovitch bill' to protect foreign service employees Senators condemn UN 'blacklisting' of US companies in Israeli settlements Media's selective outrage exposed in McSally-Raju kerfuffle MORE (D-N.J.) said in a news release.