WASHINGTON - The Interior Department announced a major expansion of offshore oil and gas development Monday with proposed lease sales covering 48 million new acres off Alaska, in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and in the central Atlantic off Virginia.
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The five-year plan calls for a lease sale for the first time in Bristol Bay, an area of 5.6 million acres that until earlier this year had been off limits to energy development by presidential directive.
Environmentalists and many commercial fishermen have argued the bay, which has huge annual catches of salmon, cod, king crab and herring, should be protected from oil and gas drilling.
President Bush in January lifted a presidential ban on drilling in Bristol Bay, foreshadowing the likely lease sale.
The Sierra Club in a statement Monday decried the decision to open Bristol Bay to oil and gas companies, fearing that energy development posed a threat to "one of the largest wild salmon runs in the world" as well as the habitat of an array of marine life from Steller sea lions to endangered whale.
The department said eight lease sales are scheduled off Alaska in Bristol Bay, Cook Inlet, and the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea off the North Slope; 12 in the Gulf of Mexico and one off Virginia.
Despite concerns from environmentalists, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said he was convinced the oil and gas development could proceed and still assure "the highest environmental standards" are met. He said no leases would be issued without further environmental review and that in some cases environmentally sensitive areas would be off limits.
Kempthorne said the 21 lease sales planned in coastal waters over the next five years could produce 10 billion barrels of oil and 45 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
"This energy production will create jobs, provide greater economic and energy security for America and can be accomplished in a safe and environmentally sound manner," Kempthorne said at a news conference.
The Interior Department had said last year it was considering opening new waters off Alaska in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and - if Congress goes along - off Virginia where energy companies believe there are significant amounts of natural gas.
The 3 million acres that are 50 miles off Virginia's coast would require Congress to lift a drilling moratorium that has covered most ocean waters outside the western Gulf of Mexico for decades.
The Democratic-controlled Congress has given no indication it is willing to lift the longstanding moratorium.
Kempthorne said that while no leases could be issued off Virginia unless Congress lifted its moratorium, the area was included in the five-year plan because state officials had requested it be in the plan. No exploratory drilling or development would be allowed within 50 miles of shore. An area that extends out from the mouth of Chesapeake Bay also would be off limits.
Also, last year, Congress directed the Interior Department to make available 8.3 million acres in the east-central Gulf that long had been off limits and begin issuing leases within a year. The department's five-year plan mirrors essentially the congressional directive in the Gulf of Mexico, assuring no drilling within 125 miles of Florida's cost.
Except for the Virginia leases, the five-year plan goes into effect unless Congress blocks it within 60 days.