One of the first official acts of the Obama White House Tuesday was to send an order to all federal agencies and departments freezing pending regulations until they can be reviewed by new administration staff. The list of review no doubt will be topped by the recently published draft proposal for future lease sales in federal waters.

“White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel signed a memorandum sent to all agencies and departments to stop all pending regulations until a legal and policy review can be conducted by the Obama administration,” the White House said in a statement issued after Obama was sworn in as the 44th president.

A review is often conducted by new administrations to slow down and possibly reverse last-minute “midnight regulations” that were issued in the waning days of previous administrations.

Under the Bush administration, midnight regulations affecting oil and natural gas were issued by the Interior Department’s Mineral Management Service, namely a draft five-year plan (covering 2010-2015) to allow oil and gas leasing in long-banned areas of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). The Bush administration published the draft offshore plan last Friday, just four days before Obama was due to take office (see Daily GPI, Jan. 20).

In mid-December Obama charged his energy and environmental team with the task of reviewing the issue of whether to reinstate the expired moratorium on oil and gas development in the OCS (see Daily GPI, Dec. 16, 2008).

“What I said during the campaign was that I was open to the idea of offshore drilling if it was part of a comprehensive package to achieve energy independence,” he told reporters at the time. But “I’m not thrilled with it [the moratorium] simply lapsing as a consequence of inaction without broader thought to how we’re going to achieve energy independence.”

Congress allowed the moratorium on drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and most of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to expire on Oct. 1, while then-President Bush removed the executive ban on drilling in the federal offshore areas last July (see Daily GPI, Sept. 30, 2008, July 15, 2008). The ban to protect Florida’s western coast remains in place until 2022.

The newly issued draft five-year oil and gas lease sale proposal would auction offshore drilling acreage in areas that have been off-limits to producers for decades. The draft provides for 31 OCS lease sales in all or portions of 12 of the 26 federal planning areas. New areas proposed under the plan would include four areas offshore Alaska, two off the Pacific Coast, three areas in the Gulf of Mexico and three in Atlantic waters.

The draft lease sale proposal is just the first step in the approval process. The subsequent steps — a proposed leasing program, final environmental impact statement and possible congressional review of the program — will be up to the Obama administration, which could shelve the entire offshore leasing program.

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