World and Nation

Interior Dept. Proposes Expansion of Oil and Gas Drilling Along U.S. Coasts

The Bush administration on Monday proposed leasing out millions of acres along the coasts of Alaska and Virginia to oil and gas drillers, a move that would end a longstanding ban on drilling in those environmentally sensitive areas.

Both areas have been closed to new drilling for many years. The areas off Virginia are still protected by laws that prohibit new drilling in all areas along the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards. But Congress lifted the prohibition on Alaska’s Bristol Bay in 2003 and President Bush lifted an executive order in January that had blocked drilling there through 2012.

In the case of Virginia, administration officials are hoping to capitalize on interest in drilling expressed by the state legislature, which passed a bill last year asking the federal government to allow exploration for natural gas in waters 50 miles or farther from the state coastline.

Both proposals are part of a broader five-year plan to open up 48 million acres along the outer continental shelf to oil and gas drilling. Unless Congress objects within 60 days, most of the five-year plan will go into effect, though resistance has been voiced. Starting this year, the Interior Department plans to offer leases on about 8.3 million acres in the central region of the Gulf of Mexico, which Congress specifically approved for offshore drilling late last year.

But the Interior Department hopes to open up far more than that. It would offer leases on 37 million acres off the coast of Alaska, starting as early as 2008, in vast new areas in the Beaufort Sea, the Chukchi Sea and the Cook Inlet. None of those areas have been subject to a drilling ban, but none have been tapped before.

Starting in 2011, the Interior Department would also lease out 5.6 million acres in Bristol Bay along the Alaska peninsula — an area that Congress closed off after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in 1989. If it can get approval from Congress, it would offer up three million acres off the coast of Virginia, starting in 2012.

“The Outer Continental Shelf is a vital source of domestic oil and natural gas for America, especially in light of sharply rising energy prices,” said Dirk Kempthorne, secretary of the interior.

But Democrats in Congress criticized the plans for Alaska and Virginia, and they are likely to extend the current ban on drilling off Virginia. Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a Democrat, said he supported limited drilling for exploration but has refused to endorse production.

“Whatever pressing energy issue comes before the American people, the Bush administration always responds with the same oil answer: more oil,” said Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, D-W. Va., and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

The proposal includes measures to protect against damage to coastal areas from oil spills and other accidents. It would not allow drilling within 50 miles of the Virginia shore and would wall off an additional “obstruction zone” near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.