On expanding oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico

Published 1:52 pm Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Obama administration’s announcement Monday that it plans to auction 38 million acres of offshore oil and gas leases next year is a significant step for our nation’s energy independence and for the economy of our region.

The administration, however, is running behind the exploration time line it had mapped out before the 2010 BP oil spill. Not restoring that earlier time line remains a missed opportunity.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said the sale, scheduled for March 30 in New Orleans, will include about 7,250 federally owned oil and natural gas drilling tracts located between three and 230 miles off the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. Regulators estimate the sale could lead to production of almost a trillion barrels of oil and almost 4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

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These are significant energy resources that would greatly expand our region’s role in domestic production, while providing jobs for many Gulf Coast residents. Some of the eventual royalties from these tracts also should help pay for restoring vital marshes in South Louisiana.

The new sale will essentially mirror the size of an auction this past June for 39 million acres in the central Gulf. That was the first lease sale since the oil spill, and it brought in more than $1.7 billion in high bids from energy firms.

As significant as these sales are, however, they continue a retreat from the Obama administration’s strategy before the oil spill. That original proposal called for more rapid expansion of oil production in the Gulf and other parts of the nation and would have opened new tracts in the Gulf sooner.

Drilling safety is vitally important. But domestic production can increase while improving safety standards, as President Obama once pronounced. It also takes several years to explore new tracts and bring them to production.

That’s why the administration should return to its original strategy for exploration in the Gulf.