Activists Push for Offshore Energy Drilling Ban

By H. Josef Hebert | February 11, 2009 | 6:12 AM EST
Washington (AP) - A day after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered a review of offshore oil and gas development, Congress is set to hear from environmental activists and officials from coastal communities who want to continue the ban on offshore drilling.
The House Resources Committee on Wednesday was to open the first of three hearings to air concerns about drilling in the Outer Continental shelf waters, which for years have been off limits to energy companies.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., committee chairman, applauded Salazar for taking a "fresh look" at offshore drilling. He said the committee will examine where and under what terms future offshore oil and gas development should occur.
At a news conference Tuesday, Salazar criticized the timetable for new drilling on the country's Outer Continental Shelf, which the Bush administration proposed four days before President Barack Obama took office Jan. 20. Salazar promised to pursue a new direction in energy development, with greater emphasis on using coastal waters to generate energy from wind, the sun and waves.
While not ruling out future expansion of offshore oil and gas development, Salazar criticized the scope of the Bush proposal, which envisioned energy development from New England to Alaska, including lease sales in areas off California and in the North Atlantic that have been off limits for a quarter-century.
Congress last fall ended the broad drilling ban, dating back to 1981, that has kept energy companies from even exploring or conducting seismic studies across 85 percent of the offshore federal waters.
But it remains up to the Interior Department to issue specific plans for drilling leases. And Salazar indicated Tuesday he is in no rush to open long-protected waters, promising "to create our own timetable."
Salazar said the Bush drilling blueprint did not take into consideration the views of states and coastal communities, nor a need to better understand what energy resources are at stake -- especially off the Atlantic coast, where oil and gas estimates are more than three decades old.
"We need to ... restore an orderly process to our offshore energy planning program," said Salazar.
He directed Interior Department scientists to produce new reports on how much oil and gas might be found off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and extended the public comment period on a new five-year leasing plan to September.
He said any offshore energy plan must include a push for more renewable energy. "The Bush administration was so intent on opening new areas for oil and gas offshore that it torpedoed offshore renewable energy efforts," he maintained.
Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the large oil companies, said Salazar's announcement "means that development of our offshore resources could be stalled indefinitely."
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