Arctic waters would be open to new oil and gas development under an Obama administration proposal that keeps the Pacific and Atlantic coasts off-limits to more drilling.
The Interior Department's offshore leasing plan, released Tuesday, attempts to steer a middle course — and goes too far in the view of environmental groups and not far enough in the eyes of House Republicans.
The proposal omits Atlantic and Pacific coast areas that the George W. Bush administration sought to open to drilling. But it also calls for three lease sales off the coast of Alaska in environmentally fragile areas that have become a much-contested frontier in energy production.
"This five-year program will make available for development more than three-quarters of undiscovered oil and gas resources estimated on the [Outer Continental Shelf], including frontier areas such as the Arctic, where we must proceed cautiously, safely and based on the best science available," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.
Environmentalists warned that there was no proven way to clean up oil spills in the remote north, a place of ice floes, towering waves and winter darkness.
"Spill prevention, containment and response systems are not equipped to work in challenging Arctic conditions," said Athan Manuel of the Sierra Club.
Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the proposal "places some of the most promising energy resources in the world off-limits."
Most of the new leases would be offered in the Gulf of Mexico, which accounts for more than a quarter of the nation's domestic oil production.
Leasing in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska's northern coast would not take place for several years to allow time for more study and spill-response planning, the Interior Department said. It added that the Arctic leases would "be tailored to avoid sensitive environmental resources," including areas vital to Native Alaskans.
The proposal is the latest in a series of offshore drilling plans that have changed with administrations and in the aftermath of the gulf's Deepwater Horizon disaster.
The Bush administration proposed greatly expanding Arctic oil and gas drilling and had issued some leases there. It also wanted to open areas off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts where new drilling has long been prohibited, setting off protests by many of the regions' governors.
President Obama scrapped the Bush plan but later moved toward drilling off the mid- and southern Atlantic Coast and in the eastern gulf — an effort he abandoned after the Deepwater Horizon disaster highlighted shortcomings in spill containment and government oversight.
Drilling is not entirely new to Arctic waters. There are a handful of exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea and more than two dozen in the Beaufort Sea. Shell Exploration is waiting for a final permit to begin drilling three more wells on an existing lease in what could be the start of an ambitious effort to tap reserves in the Arctic's frigid, stormy waters.