Muckraker: Grist on Politics

In a rebuke of the Bush administration’s oil and gas policies, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday announced that his department is shelving a plan to open new areas of the outer continental shelf to oil and gas drilling. The agency will gather more public input before deciding how to proceed on offshore drilling, and will conduct a new review of offshore oil and gas resources.

“We are changing the way the Department of Interior does business,” said Salazar. “What this shows is a dramatic change from the last eight years, where you had a one-way road to energy independence, which was drill, drill, drill.”

During the last days of the Bush administration, the Department of Interior enacted a new, five-year offshore leasing plan, set to be finalized on March 23. It would allow for lease sales in areas that had for years been off-limits, but were opened to potential development when the federal offshore drilling ban expired last year. Salazar announced that the department is extending the public-comment period on the plan by 180 days, to September 23.

“There was almost no consideration of state, industry, or community input” as the Bush administration put together its offshore plan, Salazar said. “In my view, it was a headlong rush of the worst kind … The process tilted toward the normal energy players, while the renewable energy interests, consumers, and taxpayers were overlooked.”

Salazar said his department will host four regional meetings on the plan over the next month, in Alaska, the Pacific Coast, the Atlantic Coast, and the Gulf Coast, though specific locations haven’t yet been chosen. At those hearings, the public, state leaders, environmental groups, and the oil and gas industry will have opportunities to air their opinions.

Salazar is directing the U.S. Geological Survey and the Minerals Management Service to produce a new report on available oil and gas resources on the outer continental shelf (OCS) within the next 45 days. “Our available data is very old and incomplete,” he said. “We shouldn’t make decisions on America’s treasures based on old information.”

The interior secretary emphasized that both he and President Obama believe that offshore drilling can play a role in energy independence, but only if it is part of a comprehensive energy plan. “OCS will be important to making sure the U.S. achieves energy independence,” said Salazar. “But as we move forward there really needs to be a portfolio … renewable energy, conservation, advanced technologies.”

Salazar also directed his department to finalize rules on offshore renewable energy, which will govern the development of wind, wave, and tidal resources. Guidelines for offshore renewable development were required by the 2005 Energy Policy Act, but the Bush administration never delivered final rules.

Reactions

The oil and gas industry, as one would expect, was not pleased by the announcement.

“We need to act quickly and aggressively to develop domestic energy resources that could provide energy, jobs, and needed revenues for states,” said Barry Russell, chief executive of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “This unnecessary delay will hold America back, at the precise moment when we need to move forward the most.”

Environmentalists were, of course, happier.

“We applaud the Interior Department for taking a fresh look a President Bush’s ‘drill everywhere’ policies,” said Mike Gravitz of Environment America. “More efficient vehicles, mass transit, and clean energy will cut pollution and reduce dependence on oil far more effectively than more oil drilling will.”

But some enviros are calling on the Obama administration to go further and reinstate the federal offshore drilling ban. “Saying ‘no’ to offshore drilling is the only way to keep sensitive ocean and coastal areas from becoming oiled industrial zones, and to put a lid on climate change by reducing our use of fossil fuels,” said Jacqueline Savitz, senior campaign director for Oceana.

Oceans advocates want more protections for the Arctic Ocean in particular, noting that 73.4 million acres of the ocean are currently available for development.

“Before one more acre of Arctic waters is leased to the oil and gas industry, we urge Secretary Salazar to call for a timeout on all oil and gas activity in the Arctic Ocean, to ensure that the reckless decisions of the past do no more damage in the future,” said David Dickson of the Alaska Wilderness League.

Rep. Ed Markey, chair of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, praised the Obama administration’s moves. “Secretary Salazar’s announcement today will put an end to the Bush administration’s policy of ‘drill first and ask questions later’ when it comes to opening new offshore areas,” said Markey. “The tide has turned back towards reason and a comprehensive energy plan for our country that sees promise in the winds and the tides, not just in drills and rigs.”