Salazar rejects expansion of offshore oil drilling

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration put the brakes Tuesday on a push to expand oil and gas drilling off America’s coasts and promised to speed development of offshore wind farms.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced he will extend public comments for six months on a last-minute proposal by the Bush administration to open swaths of the California, Alaska, Atlantic and Gulf coasts for drilling. He also ordered Interior Department staff to compile data on the potential benefits from oil, gas and renewable development offshore and pledged public hearings on drilling, including one to be held on the Pacific Coast.

Salazar also said the department would finalize guidelines for developing wind and other renewable energy development, which Bush officials did not complete before leaving office.

Salazar called the Bush drilling plan a “headlong rush” based on bad information and tilted toward “old energy.”

“The previous administration,” Salazar added, “was so intent on opening additional areas for drilling offshore that it torpedoed renewable energy.”

He offered measured praise for expanded drilling as part of a broad energy package, and he promised oil and gas companies a role in the review process. He gave no indication that President Barack Obama is considering reinstituting the ban on offshore drilling that President George W. Bush lifted last year amid soaring gasoline prices and wide public support for domestic oil exploration.

Still, energy industry groups accused Salazar of stalling and keeping a potential oil bonanza from the American public.

“In these tough economic times, Salazar’s delay does a disservice to all Americans,” Jack Gerard, the president of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement. “We should be moving as quickly as possible to develop more of our own oil and natural gas to benefit all Americans.”

In a study to be released this month by the American Energy Alliance, a free-market energy think tank, Louisiana State University business professor Joseph Mason says that tapping an estimated 86 billion barrels of oil and 420 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from coastal areas could net the United States $8.7 trillion and create 1.2 million jobs over the next 30 years.

Environmentalists say any benefits are outweighed by the risks such drilling poses to marine life and coastal communities, including the chance of an oil spill devastating multi-billion-dollar fishing and tourism industries. Several environmental groups praised Salazar’s decision, but others pressed him to go further.

“Without a new (drilling) moratorium, our coasts and oceans will be more vulnerable to oil damage than they have been since the Exxon Valdez spill,” said Jacqueline Savitz, senior campaign director for Oceana, an environmental group dedicated to marine protection.

Salazar wasn’t the only Obama official freezing a controversial Bush decision on Tuesday: The Environmental Protection Agency announced it will delay implementation of an air pollution rule that critics said would have allowed some industrial plants to emit more smog and soot.

(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.