White House Plan to Open Atlantic to Drilling Draws Fire From Republicans, Democrats

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By Ari Natter

Jan. 27 — A proposal by the Obama administration to allow oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic Ocean for the first time while placing new limits on drilling in the Arctic drew bipartisan criticism Jan. 27, with Republicans arguing that the draft five-year offshore drilling plan didn't go far enough and Democrats calling it a gift to the fossil fuel industry.

The plan, which would establish the nation's offshore leasing schedule from 2017 to 2022, “is a welcome thaw in the administration's drilling moratorium,” but more is needed, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said.

“Too many of our nation’s energy resources remain under lock and key, and the administration is working to make it even more difficult to access some areas that are currently available,” Upton said in a statement. “North American energy independence is now finally within our grasp, but we can’t make this goal a reality with unnecessary red tape standing in our way.”

In all, the draft plan, which is one of the first steps in a process expected to take several years, calls for 14 potential lease sales—10 in the Gulf of Mexico, three off the coast of Alaska, and one in a portion of the Mid- and South Atlantic in an area from Virginia to Georgia, according to the Interior Department.

The last lease sales in the Atlantic were in 1983, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

Lowest Number of Lease Sales Offered 

But the draft also called for no lease sales in the eastern Gulf or Pacific Ocean and represents the lowest number of lease sales in the history of the program, according to Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

“We’ve taken a step backward,” Bishop said in a statement.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C), the author of an amendment to pending Keystone pipeline legislation (S. 1) that would direct the Interior Department to allow offshore oil and natural gas exploration for the entire Mid- and South Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf, called the plan “wholly inadequate.”

While the Obama administration proposed new lease sales in the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea and Cook Inlet areas off the coast of Alaska, it also designated portions of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas as off limits from consideration for future oil and gas leasing, angering Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

`Short-Sighted Thinking.'

“This administration is determined to shut down oil and gas production in Alaska’s federal areas—and this offshore plan is yet another example of their short-sighted thinking,” Murkowski said in a statement.

The Interior Department is still offering 90 percent of the technically recoverable resources in the remaining portions of those areas, Jessica Kershaw, an Interior Department spokeswoman, said in an e-mail to Bloomberg BNA.

Though the plan doesn't require congressional approval, a contingent of Democratic senators from the East Coast vowed to fight it on grounds it places their states' beaches at risk of an oil spill and because of other environmental concerns.

“We are going to make it clear we are very unhappy with the plan,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said. “We are going to put pressure on the White House about these sensitive areas.”

‘More Visionary' Policy Needed 

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), said the plan shows “a more visionary” energy policy is needed with more focus on the development of renewables.

“This cannot be allowed to happen,” Booker said at a news conference in the Capitol. “What we are allowing to happen is a creep of the fossil fuel industry.”

The current five-year program expires Aug. 26, 2017, and allows for a total of 15 offshore leas sales—lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and three off the Alaskan coast.

“Despite spending years claiming not to have enough access, oil and gas companies already hold more than 27 million acres of leases that aren’t producing any energy,” Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement. “They should develop those areas before they and their Republican allies complain any further.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ari Natter in Washington at anatter@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com