Arctic drilling set to increase under Obama plan

@CNNMoney November 8, 2011: 4:38 PM ET
President Obama is proposing three new oil leases in Arctic waters off Alaska's north coast, angering environmentalists.

President Obama is proposing three new oil leases in Arctic waters off Alaska's north coast, angering environmentalists.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The Obama administration proposed more oil drilling in Arctic waters Tuesday, planning two new leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off Alaska's north coast.

The plan also offers new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and in Alaska's Cook Inlet on the state's southern coast over the next five years, but keeps new drilling away from the east, west and Florida coasts.

The proposal, outlined by the Interior Department, seeks to strike a balance between energy production and environmental protection.

The proposal largely keeps to previous statements made by the administration on offshore drilling since the BP spill except in regard to the Arctic.

Although the administration has always indicated it would allow drilling in the Arctic, it had never offered leases to drill on the land it owns beneath the ocean's surface.

The Arctic leases won't be offered until 2014 or 2015, the Interior Department said, in an effort to give companies and the government time to adequately prepare for a spill and conduct further scientific study.

The news did not sit well with environmentalists, who say a spill in the cold Arctic waters would be nearly impossible to clean up and irreversibly damage the fragile ecosystem.

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"The administration is claiming significant steps have been taken to make drilling safer, but in fact there's been no fundamental reform that can keep the Gulf of Mexico or the Arctic safe from the next spill catastrophe," Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

Despite the concerns, drilling in Arctic waters was set in motion before Tuesday's announcement. Earlier this year Royal Dutch Shell (RDSA) secured a key permit to drill on leases it previously bought. The company hopes to receive the remaining permits and begin drilling as early as next summer.

The Arctic is thought to hold vast amounts of oil, and the world's big oil companies like ExxonMobil (XOM, Fortune 500), BP (BP) and Chevron (CVX, Fortune 500) are scrambling to get in on the action.

Combined with 12 new leases being offered in the Gulf of Mexico, the administration said the new proposal will make 75% of the country's offshore oil resources available to oil companies and help Obama meet his goal of reducing oil imports by a third by 2025.

"Expanding safe and responsible oil and gas production from [offshore areas] is a key component of our comprehensive energy strategy to grow America's energy economy," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.

Still, the oil industry was unimpressed.

Under President George W. Bush, the oil companies were looking at gaining access to not only Arctic waters but also areas off the entire East Coast, the Florida Gulf Coast, and Southern California.

The Obama administration was considering offering most of those areas for drilling as well, but changed course after the massive BP spill in the spring of 2010.

"Taking these areas off the table at this stage could impede the nation's drive toward enhancing both its economic and energy security," Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations at the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement. "This is a missed opportunity to open additional areas that could have helped address rising energy demand, create American jobs and reduce the federal deficit."

The proposal now undergoes a public and Congressional comment period before a final lease policy takes effect, slated for sometime in 2012.  To top of page

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