Calling for a “comprehensive energy plan,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday that the Gulf of Mexico and other federal waters will have an important role to play both in the expansion of renewable energy like wind power and in production of traditional oil and natural gas resources.
But he didn’t say if the Obama administration’s preference for a “balanced approach” includes opening more of the U.S. coastline to offshore drilling.
He let others weigh in on that debate Wednesday in New Orleans, at the second of four public hearings to gather views on long-range plans for the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf, which includes federally protected waters and submerged lands off the Gulf, Atlantic, Pacific and Alaskan coasts.
At the hearing, environmental groups took the microphone and praised a recent Interior Department report suggesting great potential for meeting U.S. electricity needs with offshore wind farms. But they said expanding offshore drilling would do greater harm to sensitive ocean ecosystems and only invest the U.S. deeper in polluting fossil fuels.
Darryl Malek-Wiley, with the Sierra Club in New Orleans, called for a detailed analysis of oil spills, citing hundreds of millions of gallons of crude that leaked in recent hurricanes, in part because of aging oil and gas infrastructure.
But the oil and gas industry contends that the industry’s safety and environmental record has improved greatly. Further, it argues that more offshore drilling is essential to help wean the U.S. from foreign oil and could create domestic jobs at a time when the economy is ailing.
“There are a lot more people coming out saying we’re tired of ancient policies in the area of energy development, and it’s time to use more resources,” said Jack Gerard, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute in Washington.
The debate has returned to the fore after Congress last year let expire two long-standing bans that blocked drilling on 85 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf. At the time, when oil and gasoline prices were soaring, public support for expanded offshore drilling was strong.
But now Congress is considering whether to make some areas off-limits again.
Even if lawmakers don’t impose new drilling bans, a final decision on issuing new offshore leases would rest with the Obama administration.
In February, Salazar announced he will extend public comments for six months on a last-minute proposal by the Bush administration to open huge swaths of the Pacific, Alaska, Atlantic and Gulf coasts for drilling.
A recent Interior Department report said unexplored areas of the Outer Continental Shelf could contain some 86 billion barrels of oil and 420 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, though not all is economically feasible to recover.