Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has rejected a Bush administration plan to open vast waters off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts to oil and gas drilling, promising "a new way forward" in offshore energy development including new wind projects.
Salazar at a news conference Tuesday criticized "the midnight timetable" for new oil and gas development on the country's Outer Continental Shelf proposed by the Bush administration four days before President Barack Obama took office Jan. 20.
The secretary said the previous administration's plan did not take into consideration the views of states and coastal communities, nor a need to better understand what energy resources are at stake, especially off the Atlantic coast where oil and gas estimates are more than three decades old.
"We need to ... restore an orderly process to our offshore energy planning program," declared Salazar, criticizing "foot dragging" by the Bush administration in pushing for renewable energy development in coastal waters.
Salazar did not rule out expanded offshore drilling, but criticized "the enormous sweep" of the Bush proposal, which envisioned energy development from New England to Alaska including lease sales in areas off California and in the North Atlantic that have been off-limits for a quarter century.
Congress last fall ended the broad drilling ban, dating back to 1981, that has kept energy companies from even exploring or conducting seismic studies across 85 percent of the offshore federal waters.
But it remains up to the Interior Department to issue specific plans for drilling leases. And Salazar indicated Tuesday he is in no rush to open vast expanses of long-protected waters, promising "to create our own timetable."
Salazar directed Interior Department scientists to produce new reports on how much oil and gas might be found off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and extended the public comment period on a new five-year leasing plan to September. He said he will hold regional meetings to get comments from the public before continuing with an offshore energy plan.
Offshore drilling became a contentious issue during the presidential campaign as Republican John McCain made it a pivotal part of his energy agenda. Obama has said he's not opposed to drilling in some waters that have been off limits, but insisted it should be part of a broader energy plan.
Salazar said any offshore energy plan must include a push for more renewable energy, principally wind power.
"The Bush administration was so intent on opening new areas for oil and gas offshore that it torpedoed offshore renewable energy efforts," maintained Salazar. "It was not their priority."
He promised to move aggressively to complete a new regulation on offshore renewable energy programs including wind, solar and wave energy projects.
But Salazar did not rule out an expansion off offshore oil and gas drilling. Some issues such as revenue sharing from offshore energy development must still be worked out in Congress, which also is likely to have a say on what specific waters might again be put off limits.
Salazar, however, has not abandoned a proposal for oil and gas leasing off Virginia, which is included in the current drilling plan scheduled to expire in 2012, nor has he indicated a desire to cancel leasing plans off Alaska including in the Chukchi Sea and Bristol Bay were drilling leases are facing court challenges.
Nevertheless, Salazar's announcement was hailed by environmentalists and some drilling opponents in Congress as a new direction in U.S. offshore energy development.
It's "a new way of doing business" at the Interior Department, said Wesley Warren at the Natural Resources Defense Council, citing Salazar's emphasis on renewable energy development.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said Salazar was "bringing ... regulatory sanity back into our energy policy.
But Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the large oil companies, said Salazar's announcement "means that development of our offshore resources could be stalled indefinitely."
The Interior Department estimates -- using 30-year-old studies -- that offshore waters recently lifted from drilling bans contain at least 18 billion barrels of oil, about half of it off California.