Obama to unveil offshore drilling plans for oil, natural gas


President Obama will announce new plans to drill for oil and natural gas off America’s coasts Wednesday but will rule out drilling off California, Oregon and Washington state through 2017, administration officials say.

Obama’s plans will include opening new areas of coastal Virginia and other parts of the mid-Atlantic region, Alaska and the eastern Gulf of Mexico for drilling. But officials say the president will block drilling in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, where the George W. Bush administration’s drilling plans in 2007 angered environmentalists.

According to administration officials, the plan would:

* Eventually open two-thirds of the eastern Gulf’s oil and gas resources for drilling.

* Proceed with drilling off Virginia, provided the project clears environmental and military reviews.

* Study the viability of drilling off the mid- and southern Atlantic coasts.

* Study the viability of drilling in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas -- areas hotly defended by environmentalists -- but issue no new drilling leases in either sea before 2013.

The eastern Gulf of Mexico leases hinge on Congress lifting a moratorium on drilling there. Even if that happens, administration officials said, Obama’s plan included no drilling within 125 miles of the Florida coastline.

The announcement, scheduled for an energy security event at Joint Base Andrews Naval Air Facility, will be Obama’s first major policy step into the politically charged area of offshore drilling.

The president’s drilling plans run through 2017. The likely scope and details of the proposals represent compromises that risk angering energy companies and environmentalists alike.

The proposals will be open for public comment for several months, then will be finalized by the administration.

Obama’s announcement will come in the run-up to the summer driving season, as gasoline prices have begun a national march toward $3 a gallon, and beyond that in California.

The administration is pushing expanded offshore exploration as a bargaining chip in its attempts to enact sweeping legislation to curb oil imports and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Energy companies and conservatives have clamored for increased drilling since gasoline prices rose during the 2008 presidential campaign. Environmentalists contend that more drilling could lead to oil spills and the destruction of fragile ecosystems.

While campaigning for the White House, Obama called for increased, targeted drilling.

In his State of the Union address in January, the president said energy security and job creation require “making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development.”

But his administration has come under heavy criticism from Republicans, who accuse it of dragging its feet on offshore exploration. Some in the GOP accuse Obama of a de-facto moratorium on new drilling.

Shortly after Obama took office, his Interior Department retracted a Bush administration proposal for drilling from 2012 to 2017. Later, a court invalidated portions of the nation’s existing drilling plan.

Wednesday’s announcement will set out a new 2012-17 proposal as well as more immediate plans for lease sales.

Administration officials said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, as part of Obama’s new drilling plan, will scrap a planned lease sale for Bristol Bay. Obama will announce that he is reverting to the policies of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton, who both blocked drilling of any kind in the bay.

Bristol Bay is a highly productive fishery and part of a Bering Sea region that supplies 40% of the nation’s seafood. Congress blocked drilling there after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. President George W. Bush removed the last impediments to drilling in the bay in 2007 and had scheduled a drilling lease sale there in 2011.

The Interior Department considered opening drilling in areas off California but decided against it, officials said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opposes more offshore drilling, his spokesman said, but supports a proposal to allow expanded drilling off existing platforms for a set period of time. After the allotted time, the platforms would be removed.

Other governors, including Republican Bob McDonnell of Virginia, have pushed Obama to allow more drilling off their coasts.

Pending legislation could give state officials a stronger hand in those decisions. The crafters of a Senate energy and climate bill are mulling over a provision that would allow states to choose whether to open close-in offshore areas for drilling.