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Arctic Oil and Gas
The New York Times, November 8, 2011

U.S. to Open New Areas to Offshore Drilling
By John M. Broder

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Tuesday announced its proposed five-year plan for offshore oil drilling, which calls for opening new areas in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska but bars development along the East and West Coasts.

The plan disappointed environmentalists but fell far short of what the oil industry and its Congressional supporters demanded.

The plan, which is subject to months of public hearings and possible revisions, expands the areas in the Gulf of Mexico that are now under development, including some near Florida that have been off limits. It will also make available broader parts of the Arctic Ocean off the North Slope of Alaska and in the Cook Inlet off the state’s southern shore.

But unlike an administration plan announced shortly before the lethal BP blowout and spill in April 2010, the government is withdrawing all of the Eastern Seaboard from leasing consideration.

The earlier proposal, later reversed, drew sharp protests from state and federal representatives along the East Coast, except for a handful of Virginia officials who were eager to see drilling rigs off the state’s coastline.

Ken Salazar, the interior secretary, said the new plan incorporated the lessons learned from the BP explosion, which killed 11 workers and poured nearly five million barrels of crude into the gulf. Mr. Salazar said the proposal was a balance between resource development and environmental protection, while acknowledging that drilling beneath 5,000 feet of water in the gulf or in the unforgiving conditions in the Arctic would never be free of risk.

Oil industry officials quickly criticized the plan, which covers the years 2012-17, saying it limits oil exploration at a time when the economy is in desperate need of jobs.

But Mr. Salazar said that oil production in 2010 was at its highest level since 2003 and that natural gas production was at its highest peak in 30 years. He said his proposed offshore lease strategy made available more than 75 percent of undiscovered and technically recoverable oil and gas resources.

Still, anticipating industry criticism, he said at a noon briefing for reporters, “We don’t believe we should open up every single place and look under every single rock in order to produce oil and gas.”

Jack N. Gerard, the president of the American Petroleum Institute, said in an interview that this was a missed opportunity for the administration.

“They failed to open additional areas that would have led to job creation, revenue generation and economic recovery,” Mr. Gerard said. “What they’ve offered today is significantly less than what the president offered in 2010. The reality is we’re moving in the wrong direction.”

Environmental advocates responded vehemently to the new plan, which they said put sensitive coastlines, waters and fisheries at risk in Alaska and in the gulf.

“Last year’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was supposed to be a wake-up call about the dangers of offshore drilling,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But it looks like President Obama hit the snooze button and slept right through it.”

Several groups pointed out the difficulties of dealing with a potential spill in the Arctic, where the nearest Coast Guard facility is almost 1,000 miles away.

David J. Hayes, the deputy interior secretary, acknowledged that the infrastructure did not now exist to prevent or respond to a major spill in the Arctic. Mr. Hayes said a response could be compromised by inclement weather, a lack of deep harbors, a shortage of appropriate vessels and inadequate oil transportation resources.

The department was addressing those concerns, he said, and as a result had scheduled any possible lease sales in Alaska for the end of the five-year lease program.

Frances Beinecke, the president of Natural Resources Defense Council and a member of the panel Mr. Obama named to investigate the BP spill, said approving new drilling without adequate safety measures was a “reckless gamble.”

“The president’s oil spill commission put forth a game plan to improve the industry’s safety, but it has yet to be realized,” Ms. Beinecke said in a statement. “Congress has failed to pass a single law to better protect workers or the environment. Industry has not invested sufficiently in developing the technologies needed to prevent future disasters. And the government still needs additional resources and science in order to effectively police an industry that so desperately needs it.”

© 2011 The New York Times Company

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton