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FOIA Filed to Obtain Documents on Bush-Era Leasing Plan

November 2, 2009
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A conservative group last Monday put pressure on the Obama administration to disclose the breakdown of the half-million public comments that it received on the Bush-era five-year plan (2010-2015) to open more offshore areas to oil and natural gas leasing.

"For eight months Americans submitted comments to the Minerals Management Service [MMS] regarding the newest offshore oil and gas leasing program in the Outer Continental Shelf [OCS]. Even though the comment period ended over a month ago, MMS has been mum on the breakdown of the results," said Washington, DC-based American Solutions, which was created by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"Despite claims by Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar that the process for leasing portions of the [OCS] for oil and gas would not happen 'behind closed doors,' that looks to be exactly what is happening."

The group last Monday filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain all relevant MMS documents relating to the comment period, including comment tabulations and internal correspondence discussing the results.

Interior said it received more than 530,000 comments on the proposed OCS leasing plan for 2010-2015. "Sources confirm that comments in support of offshore drilling outnumber those opposed by 2-1, yet the administration is refusing to tell the whole truth about what Americans want and how they plan to move forward," American Solutions claimed.

Citing the Bush administration's "headlong" rush to push through the 2010-2015 leasing plan before leaving office, Salazar put the brakes on it in February -- a move that elicited considerable protests from producers. The proposed leasing plan, which would open banned areas off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, was issued on Jan. 16, the last business day of the Bush administration (see NGI, Feb. 16). This action, if left unchecked, would have accelerated by two years the regular process for creating a new plan for the OCS.

"In my view it was a headlong rush of the worst kind," Salazar said. Moreover, the process during the Bush era was "tilted toward the usual energy players, while renewable energy companies and interests...were being overlooked."

Salazar extended the comment period to Sept. 23, which slowed the process. He further directed MMS and the U.S. Geological Survey to issue a report on traditional and renewable OCS resources within 45 days. And 30 days following the issuance of the report, Salazar hosted four regional meetings on the OCS in Alaska and along the Eastern Seaboard, West Coast and Gulf of Mexico.

In a related development, a bipartisan coalition of 69 House lawmakers led by Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) last week sent a letter to the head of President Obama's Ocean Policy Task Force criticizing an interim report on ocean policy as being lopsided -- focusing too heavily on environmental stewardship while virtually ignoring the development of energy resources.

In a letter to Nancy Sutley, chair of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, the House lawmakers said the "policies and principles that are advocated in the [recent] interim report focus heavily on environmental stewardship, which is one of several important priorities. However, the interim report does not adequately support other national priorities, including the economic development of ocean resources." In addition to chairing the task force, Sutley is the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

The coalition, which included 10 Democrats, said it was "particularly concerned about the task force's impact on our nation's ability to safely develop its own offshore energy, including oil, natural gas and renewable energy." The task force's proposals "[should] not inhibit energy activity offshore in domestic waters and undermine the Department of Interior's five-year leasing program for offshore energy development," it noted.

"We urge the Obama administration and the task force to take an approach to oceans policy that recognizes and promotes access to the abundant American energy resources located offshore. By ensuring that offshore areas surrounding the Gulf, Atlantic, Pacific and Alaskan coasts are open to responsible oil, natural gas and alternative energy development, the federal government will provide the nation with the opportunity to safely produce our own energy.

"Economic and recreational activity in our oceans is compatible with responsible ocean stewardship. The oil and natural gas industry has proven that environmental protection of the ocean can be accomplished in harmony with energy development...OCS [Outer Continental Shelf] leases produce about 1.4 million b/d, and the Minerals Management Service calculates that since the 1980s less than 0.001% of the oil produced in the OCS has been spilled," the coalition said.

A recent report by the American Energy Alliance said expanded drilling in the OCS would generate 1.2 million jobs and $70 billion in additional wages annually, plus $8 trillion in economic output and $2.2 trillion in tax receipts, according to the House lawmakers.

Congressmen who signed the letter included Reps. Joe Barton (R-TX), Dan Boren (D-OK), Henry Cuellar (D-TX), Robert Goodlatte (R-VA), Doc Hastings (R-WA), Collin Peterson (D-MN), Pete Sessions (R-TX) and Don Young (R-AK).

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