Resources Panel to Assess Interior's 2007-2012 Lease Program

A House Natural Resources subcommittee this week examines the Interior Department's 2007-2012 outer continental shelf oil and gas-leasing program.

Interior unveiled the final program in late April with claims it could spur production of 10 billion barrels of oil and over 45 trillion cubic feet of gas over 40 years. The program envisions 21 OCS lease sales during the period, of which 12 are in the Gulf of Mexico, eight off Alaska, and one 50 miles off the coast of Virginia.

The plan is controversial. It calls for new drilling in Alaska's Bristol Bay following President Bush's decision to lift leasing restrictions there earlier this year. The plan envisions a lease sale there in 2011 covering 5.6 million acres.

Environmentalists say the area should remain off-limits, citing abundant sockeye salmon, endangered right whales and other wildlife. Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) want Congress to block leasing there. But Interior officials say drilling would be preceded by careful environmental reviews and that modern oil and gas technologies allow safe development.

Another controversial aspect of the plan is the inclusion of leasing in a region off the coast of Virginia. But proceeding with the Virginia sale -- tentatively scheduled for 2011 -- would require the president and Congress to alter leasing bans that cover the Atlantic coast.

The plan also increases Gulf of Mexico access after Congress last year approved -- and President Bush signed -- legislation requiring expanded leasing there. Other lease sales are planned in Alaska in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and Cook Inlet.

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