WASHINGTON — The Obama administration cautiously offered up more areas in the Gulf of Mexico and off Alaska's coast to oil and gas drilling Tuesday, but didn't go far enough to satisfy Republicans pushing to greatly expand drilling as way to create jobs and wean the country off foreign oil.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar unveiled a proposal to hold 15 lease sales for areas in the Gulf of Mexico, including two in the eastern Gulf, and three off Alaska's coast in 2012-2017. The sales off Alaska, where native groups and environmentalists have objected to drilling, would be the first since 2008.
And they would be held late in the five-year timeframe to allow time for scientific evaluations in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, which Interior officials called a "frontier" for drilling. They also would be targeted to avoid areas with cultural and environmental sensitivities, officials said.
In the western and central Gulf, by contrast, the proposal puts all unleased acreage up for sale.
"The approach we are taking there is a cautious one," Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said of the Arctic leases. "We are aware of the substantial issues associated with major production."
The drilling plans are the latest iteration of President Barack Obama's strategy for energy production, which has continually shifted to account for political realities, high gasoline prices and environmental disasters, such as last year's Gulf oil spill. Weeks before that disaster, the White House had talked of expanding offshore drilling off Alaska, in the Atlantic and throughout the eastern Gulf, in part to help move stalled climate-change legislation through Congress. It pulled back late last year after the blowout of the Deep Water Horizon oil rig.
In May, with Republicans in Congress passing bills to reopen and expand offshore drilling and with the public outraged over high gasoline prices, Obama directed his administration to extend existing leases and to hold more frequent sales in the federal petroleum reserve in Alaska.
Tuesday's proposal goes slightly further by putting the parts of the Cook Inlet, Chukchi and Beaufort seas up for sale and a sliver on the far west side of the eastern Gulf that is not subject to a congressional moratorium.
But the plan falls short of proposals passed in the House — and touted by Republicans running for president, who want to open up areas everywhere to drilling. They have accused the president of stifling American energy.
"No new drilling or new lease sales will occur during President Obama's term in office," predicted Washington Republican Rep. Doc Hastings, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Hastings, who sponsored three measures that passed the House earlier this year to speed up drilling and open up areas along the East and West coast, Alaska and eastern Gulf to drilling.
"The Obama administration's draft plan places some of the most promising energy resources in the world off-limits," said Hastings, a Washington Republican.
Lawmakers from Alaska, who have pushed to tap its energy resources, hailed the plan as a positive step Tuesday.
But Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate energy panel, said the permitting process would ultimately determine the success of the lease sales.
Shell Oil Co. paid the federal government $2.1 billion for petroleum leases in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest shore in 2008, the last time federal waters in Alaska were auctioned off. But nearly four years later, the oil giant has yet to drill an exploratory well because of lawsuits brought by environmental groups and delays in its air pollution permit.
The company hopes to start drilling in 2012.
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