He is also ordering the Interior Department to hold a Gulf of Mexico lease sale this year and two in 2012, thus completing the department’s five-year plan for the area.
The moves are part of an effort to fulfill the president’s pledge to increase domestic oil production and reduce oil imports, even as he acknowledges that it won’t alter gasoline prices in the short-run. They also resemble positions the president took just a month before the BP spill in the gulf.
A senior administration official said the administration believed it could move ahead in Alaska in “attractive areas” for drilling while remaining “consistent with environmental values.”
But Obama’s administrative actions come amid political hubbub over offshore drilling. Last week, the House passed three sweeping measures that would allow more drilling off the nation’s Alaskan, Pacific and Atlantic coasts as well as in the Gulf of Mexico. The bills would also make it more difficult for drilling opponents to mount legal challenges based on environmental reviews.
A senior administration official said the Obama administration was not reacting to the House measures, but that it had been “on track” to complete its Gulf of Mexico drilling plans “regardless of legislation.”
Officials also said that the administration would scrutinize existing leases, arguing that half of leased areas onshore and 70 percent of those offshore were “inactive” despite oil industry complaints about limited lease sales.
The president’s remarks were welcomed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) as “a positive development.”
“I’ve been strongly critical of this administration’s policies on domestic production, but today I want to give credit to the president,” Murkowski said in a statement Saturday.
Oil companies have argued that the administration is counting areas where the companies are still assembling seismic information and making preparations for drilling that will eventually take place. One top executive last week called the administration’s use of this issue “disingenuous.”
A senior Obama official said Friday that the administration would consider incentives, such as lower royalty rates, to prod companies to drill early.
While the Obama administration said it would conduct environmental reviews on new lease areas, its announcement of new drilling in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve is likely to provoke protests from environmental groups.