Interior proposes expanding offshore drilling in Gulf, AK and VA

Published 11:16 pm Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Interior Department has put the final touches on a five-year plan to expand oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and offshore from Alaska and Virginia.

Interior officials said Friday the plan will include more environmental buffer zones around lease areas and make other minor changes to a previous draft. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne is scheduled to announce the “major oil and gas development program” Monday, a department statement says.

The new leasing plan “would significantly increase the nation’s domestic energy supplies while protecting the coastal and marine environments, and provide a major economic stimulus to the nation and participating coastal states,” the statement said.

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Details were sketchy, but in January, Bush ended drilling bans in an area of the central Gulf of Mexico and in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. That action cleared the way for:

— Making an area in the Gulf of Mexico south of Florida’s panhandle available for drilling. The “Lease Area 181” is a small part of a much larger 8.2 million acres that Congress approved for oil and gas development in December.

— Opening 5.6 million acres to drilling in waters northwest of the Alaska Peninsula, known for endangered whales and the world’s largest run of sockeye salmon. Interior plans to sell leases there in 2010 and 2012, pending environmental reviews. An estimated 200 million barrels of oil and 5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas exist under those federal waters.

Interior’s plan would, for the first time, allow drilling off Virginia’s eastern shore, in a wedge-shaped area between the Maryland and North Carolina state lines stretching to a point about 200 miles east.

Congress put Alaska’s Bristol Bay off limits to drilling in 1990 after the devastating Exxon Valdez tanker oil spill on the other side of the peninsula. The bay is a major fishing area for salmon, cod, red king crab, halibut and herring. Congress lifted that ban in 2003, but the area remained under a presidential drilling ban until Bush lifted it in January.

Kempthorne has said his department is looking at conducting one or two lease sales there over the next five years, but only after thorough environmental reviews. Environmentalists say the proposed leasing areas overlap the migratory route for all the wild salmon returning to Bristol Bay and the western Alaska river system.

Congress will have until the end of June to review the final drilling plan for all three areas.

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