Obama administration to unveil 5-year offshore drilling plan

The Obama administration is set today to unveil a plan for selling offshore drilling leases over the next five years that focuses on exploration in the Gulf of Mexico.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the Gulf of Mexico is an attractive target for oil and gas development because it has the support of bordering states and the infrastructure to support that exploration.

The region also has equipment readily available to respond to oil spills and blown-out wells, including containment systems developed after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, Salazar noted.

“We see robust oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico,” Salazar told a meeting of the government’s Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee. “There are a number of reasons to move forward.”

Today’s move likely will come in the form of a proposed offshore lease program and a draft environmental impact statement — which would put the Interior Department on course to have a new plan in place when the current one expires on June 30, 2011.

President Barack Obama already offered the broad outlines of the five-year lease schedule last December, when he reversed plans to expand drilling in the Atlantic Ocean and the eastern Gulf of Mexico in response to the 2010 spill. Previously, in March 2010 — just weeks before BP’s Macondo well blew out in the Gulf — Obama had said he would consider allowing drilling at least 125 miles off the Florida Gulf Coast and would launch studies that could pave the way for exploration in the mid- and south-Atlantic.

It was unclear what lease sales — if any — the administration would plan for Arctic waters near Alaska. Federal regulators are currently reviewing plans by Shell Oil Co., to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, under leases purchased years ago.

Salazar noted that beyond the Gulf, “there are other areas in the (outer continental shelf) that are important,” but “they’re difficult” and require the government “to develop additional science (and) additional geophysical information,” as well as spill response technology.

Michael Bromwich, the head of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, noted the “special challenges that are presented by potential development” in the Arctic.

“The Arctic is special, it is different and it is an area that has so far been largely unexplored,” he added. “We know far less about the Arctic than we do about, for example, the Gulf of Mexico. We know there are lots of challenges we face there that we are struggling to figure out.”