Obama administration to auction off oil-drilling leases

President Barack Obama’s administration will auction off a new batch of oil-drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico next month in spite of a court ruling that threw out the nation’s offshore leasing plan this year.

Officials from the Minerals Management Service, an arm of the Interior Department, gave notice Thursday morning that they will take bids for drilling on 18 million acres off the coast of Texas. The leasing tracts are located as close as 9 miles from shore and as far as 250.

The decision comes three months after the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington vacated the 2007-2012 offshore leasing program, developed under the Bush administration, which included drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska.

The court said Bush officials had not adequately studied the environmental impact of Alaskan drilling. It was silent on whether the effects on the gulf were properly considered. Two months ago, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asked the court to clarify whether that meant the new administration could proceed with gulf leasing under the plan.

Thursday morning, a Salazar spokeswoman said the department would proceed with gulf leasing “pending further guidance” from the appeals court.

“Secretary Salazar believes that it is important to move forward with President Obama’s comprehensive energy agenda for the country, which includes the balanced development of both renewable and conventional resources,” said the spokeswoman, Kendra Barkoff, in a statement.

Republicans have accused Obama and Salazar of dragging their feet on offshore drilling, most recently in press conferences this week to mark the one-year anniversary of Bush lifting an executive ban on outer continental shelf drilling.

The new administration has not yet adopted a plan for future drilling, and Salazar has not appealed the court order vacating the Bush plan.

The latest round of leasing drew only faint praise from GOP leaders.

“While I appreciate any decision to expand American domestic energy production, today’s announcement simply continues the Obama administration’s policy of only using the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas development,” Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement.

“Instead of putting all our eggs in one basket,” he said, “the Department should also offer other parts of America’s outer continental shelf so that we can reduce our dependence on foreign oil, grow our economy and create new jobs for the 9.5 percent of unemployed Americans.”

(c) 2009, Tribune Co. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.