Feds will wait til March to open sealed Gulf bids

WASHINGTON — Oil companies that hope to nab new drilling leases near the U.S.-Mexico boundary in the Gulf of Mexico will have to wait a little longer to see if they were successful.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Friday made the decision not to immediately open sealed bids for the transboundary area that were received during an offshore oil and gas lease sale in August. Ins

Instead, those bids will be opened during two back-to-back lease sales planned for March 19.

“The department has provided the companies an option to have their bid opened in March at the upcoming Gulf of Mexico lease sale,” said Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw. “Companies also have the option to withdraw their bid up to the day prior to the sale on March 19.”

Companies that submitted still-sealed bids for blocks in the area have the option to withdraw their bids and submit new ones for the same tracts at the time of the sale. Companies that did not submit bids for the territory will not have another crack at blocks in the region until the next western Gulf of Mexico lease sale later this year.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which conducts the offshore lease sales, has not said how many bids were received for the transboundary area — just that at least one was accepted before the August auction.

The bids were kept under wraps because in August, it was not certain whether Congress would ratify a long-stalled international treaty governing oil and gas drilling along the U.S.-Mexico boundary in the Gulf. But language implementing the 2012 U.S.-Mexico hydrocarbon treaty was embedded in a two-year budget deal that passed Congress and was enacted in December.

Jewell had until Saturday to decide how to handle the sealed bids — including whether to return them unopened.

The 2011 U.S.-Mexico pact set a framework for oil and gas development along the U.S.-Mexico maritime boundary in the Gulf, including the “Western Gap” area that some energy companies have been eager to explore. The treaty encourages commercial agreements where resources straddling the boundary are divided up, effectively encouraging U.S. companies to partner with Mexico’s Pemex to produce oil and gas in the 1.5 million acre area.

It also encourages U.S.-Mexico collaboration on environmental safeguards governing offshore drilling in the region and sets up a system of joint inspections, allowing U.S. safety personnel to inspect Pemex facilities involved in transboundary oil and gas operations.

There will eventually be new options available on the Mexican side of the maritime boundary too, following the country’s broad energy reform.