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Interior Accused of 'Dragging Feet' on East Coast Development

An Interior Department letter sent to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) earlier this month indicates that Secretary Ken Salazar is "dragging his feet" on oil and natural gas development off the East Coast, says the non-profit Institute for Energy Research (IER).

"A letter from the agency made public today [Feb. 12] suggests that Secretary Salazar is well on his way to ensuring that no offshore energy exploration can take place in the Atlantic until at least 2014 -- even as it works furiously to 'fast track' permits and leases important to the wind and solar industry," said the Washington, DC-based not-for-profit group that researches and analyzes global energy markets. The IER's target date of roughly 2014 assumes there will be no legal challenges to development of oil and gas resources off the East Coast.

"What this letter suggests is that Secretary Salazar isn't looking to kick the can down the road when it comes to responsible offshore exploration -- he's looking to take that can, crush it and then shut down the road altogether," said IER Vice President Dan Kish. "This administration continues to view our domestic energy resources as an environmental liability, not the job-creating assets that they are." A response from Interior was not immediately available.

The Interior letter, which was sent to Feinstein on Feb. 3, provides a prospective time line for conducting a programmatic environment impact statement (PEIS) on the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf. A PEIS must be completed before seismic testing can take place to determine where oil and gas resources are located beneath the sea floor.

According to the time line outlined in the letter, the department expects a draft PEIS to be completed in July 2011; a final PEIS to be completed in February 2012; and a record of decision to be issued in April 2012. But even after the record of decision is issued, environmental studies will have to be conducted for individual permit applications to shoot seismic studies, which could take an additional 12-18 months, said IER spokesman Patrick Creighton. Interior in late January began inviting comments on the environmental impact of conducting seismic studies off the East Coast (see NGI, Feb. 1).

"Salazar is breaking all speed records to deploy the most expensive and unreliable forms of energy that exist, while dragging his feet on the type of energy that makes America run. He is establishing a road map that sends us off an energy cliff," Kish noted.

IER pointed to Salazar's decision to shorten the lease terms for the Central Gulf of Mexico (GOM) Lease Sale 213 scheduled for March 17 as another example of the administration's lack of support for oil and gas development.

Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS) has scaled back the previous eight-year lease period in water depths of 1,312 feet (400 meters) to a five-year initial period, which may be extended by three years if a well is begun during the initial period. In water depths ranging from 2,625 feet to less than 5,249 feet (800 to 1,600 meters), a new lease period of seven years replaces the previous 10-year lease period, with an extension of three years if a well is begun during the initial period. A 10-year initial lease period will be retained in water depths of at least 5,249 feet (1,600 meters).

"The reduction of some initial lease periods with possible extensions is a way to expedite development" in the GOM, said MMS Director Liz Birnbaum.

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