Republican congressman plans bill to force more offshore leases

A top House Republican said he is preparing a bill that would force the Obama administration to open up more coastal waters for offshore drilling.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the head of the House Natural Resources Committee, said he would “introduce legislation to put the Gulf of Mexico back to work.”

“I also intend to take legislative action to reverse President Obama’s imposition of an offshore drilling moratorium outside the Gulf of Mexico,” Hastings said, referring to the administration’s decision to rule out oil and gas exploration off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts as part of its 2012-2017 blueprint for outer continental shelf leasing.

At a panel hearing on the post-spill slowdown in permitting offshore exploration, Hastings cast the Obama administration’s change as effectively reinstating an executive ban on drilling in some coastal waters that was lifted by former President George W. Bush in 2008.

Two years before the BP oil spill, in 2008, both the Bush White House and the Democratically controlled Congress took steps to expand offshore drilling amid spiking crude prices. Bush lifted the executive ban on offshore drilling, and Congress later allowed the expiration of a 26-year moratorium on oil and gas exploration over 85 percent of the outer continental shelf, including Atlantic, Pacific and Alaskan waters.

Oil industry leaders have suggested that Congress could pass legislation forcing the administration to make more offshore areas available for lease — possibly by embedding the requirement in a spending bill to fund the Interior Department. Speaking at an American Petroleum Institute “State of American Energy” event in January, API President Jack Gerard said that changing the five-year drilling plan through legislation is an option.

Obama’s Interior Department is already developing its five-year plan to govern outer continental shelf leases beginning in 2012. On Monday, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement invited the public to nominate areas in the Gulf of Mexico that should be up for sale during that time frame.

The administration is separately conducting environmental studies of the five-year plan for Gulf drilling that are required under a federal law known as the National Environmental Policy Act.