Interior plans offshore drilling despite questions


WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is moving ahead with an oil lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico next month despite legal questions about whether the proposal and other offshore drilling plans initially drawn up under President George W. Bush went through a full environmental review.

The decision comes three months after the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington blocked lease sales in Alaska, saying the Bush administration didn't properly study the environmental consequences. The Alaska drilling was part of a five-year plan to expand drilling around the country, including in the Gulf. The court didn't say whether its ruling also applied to Gulf drilling, but many experts watching the case said they believed the decision could cover the entire program, not just the Alaska portion.

Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said the agency has sought clarification from the courts. But after not getting further guidance, Secretary Ken Salazar decided to move ahead, Barkoff said.

"We're planning as if it doesn't affect the Gulf, but if the court provides direction otherwise, we will follow it," she said.

The sale would pave the way for drilling in some 18 million acres in the western Gulf near Texas. The area comes as close as nine miles from shore in some parts and stretches as far as 250 miles out in places.

The department's Minerals Management Service, which conducts lease sales, estimates the area could yield up to 423 million barrels of oil and up to 2.64 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The U.S. uses about 7.5 billion barrels of oil per year, so the estimated oil production is the equivalent of a roughly three-week supply. The nation uses about 23 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year, so the estimated gas production amounts to nearly six weeks of consumption.

Salazar's decision to proceed comes amid Republican criticism that the Obama administration isn't moving fast enough to open up new areas to drilling.

"Secretary Salazar believes that it is important to move forward with President Obama's comprehensive energy agenda for the country," Barkoff said.

The lease sale is planned for Aug. 19 at a hotel in downtown New Orleans.