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Government to auction offshore oil leases despite legal uncertainty

A federal court threw out the leasing plan, developed by the Bush administration, this year on environmental grounds. But it's not clear if the ruling applies to tracts in the Gulf of Mexico.

July 17, 2009|Jim Tankersley

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

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

The decision comes three months after the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia Circuit vacated the 2007-2012 offshore leasing program, developed under the George W. Bush administration. The plan included drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and off Alaska.

The court said that 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.

On Thursday, Salazar spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said the department would proceed with gulf leasing "pending further guidance" from the appeals court.

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

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

The latest round of leasing drew 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 of Washington, the top Republican on the natural resources committee, said in a statement Thursday.

"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% of unemployed Americans."

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jtankersley@latimes.com

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