Three prominent Senate Democrats have called on the Bush administration to open currently unavailable portions of Lease Sale 181 in the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and natural gas leasing.

“Given the current severe shortage of natural gas, the devastating potential effects of the shortage on our manufacturing and agricultural sectors, and the dire predictions for increases in home heating costs this winter, we ask that you reconsider the Bush administration’s previous unilateral action in making a highly prospective areas of the eastern Gulf off-limits to energy development,” said Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Kent Conrad (D-ND) and John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WVA) in a recent letter to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton.

Bingaman is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, while Conrad is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee and Rockefeller is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

In July 2001, the Interior Department scaled back the size of Lease Sale 181 to be offered for leasing to 1.5 million acres from 5.9 million acres. “We are advised that this action took off the table 56% of the overall resources estimated to be in the original Lease Sale 181 area,” the senators said. Of the 11.69 Tcf estimated natural gas resources in 181, they noted only 4.46 Tcf was made available for leasing.

“We appreciate that there are environmental sensitivities associated with offshore development in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. For that reason, if you think it appropriate to impose a buffer of 100 miles from the coast of Florida with respect to this area, we would have no objection. However, we believe there are portions of the original Lease Sale 181 area that should be offered for lease.”

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), chairman of the Senate energy panel, also has urged the Bush White House to take steps to expand leasing in the 181 area, which is located off the Florida Panhandle and Alabama coasts.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman last week signaled that expanded development of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) was one of several proposals that the White House was considering to deal with high gas prices and restricted supply. The other proposals dealt with a Strategic Natural Gas Reserve and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

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