The Bush administration has taken an initial step toward allowing oil and gas companies to explore for energy reserves off the coast of Maine and elsewhere in the North Atlantic.
Officials stressed, however, that many more steps, including environmental impact studies, would need to be completed before any drilling could begin in New England waters. And any plan to open Maine’s coastal waters to oil and gas exploration would face stiff opposition from many regional policy makers.
On Friday, the Minerals Management Service released a draft plan that proposes 31 oil and gas lease sales in areas of the nation’s Outer Continental Shelf. One of those leases could be located between New Jersey and Maine’s border with Canada, an area that has been closed to exploration for 25 years.
The MMS is releasing the draft proposal in order to solicit feedback from the public and the states. The lease proposal, which will be published in the Federal Register next week, covers the years 2010 to 2015.
“We’re basically giving the next administration a two-year head start,” MMS director Randall Luthi said in a statement. “This is a multistep, multiyear process with a full environmental review and several opportunities for input from the states, other government agencies and interested parties, and the general public.”
Opponents of offshore drilling describe the proposal as another example of the Bush administration attempting to rush through sweeping environmental changes during its final days.
“The fact that this is coming out three or four days before the new administration is sworn in seems to me to be the parting gift from the Bush administration for the oil and gas industry,” said Sean Mahoney, vice president and Maine director of the Conservation Law Foundation.
Mahoney said that if the Bush administration were aiming to give President-elect Barack Obama maximum flexibility, they should have let the incoming administration decide what was in the proposal.
“I think that having oil and gas on the table diverts our attention from what’s really important … which is [developing] renewable resources and decreasing our energy demand,” Mahoney said.
Last fall, Congress allowed to expire a moratorium prohibiting oil and gas exploration in many areas of the Outer Continental Shelf, including along the New England coast. At the time the country was still reeling from high gas prices, and the phrase “Drill, baby, drill” had become part of the rhetoric of the presidential cam-paign.
The MMS estimates that the North Atlantic holds oil and gas reserves with a net value of $21 billion to $101 billion after accounting for the environmental and social costs of extracting the resource. Five companies expressed interest with the MMS in exploring the region for energy reserves.
But any proposal likely would face a difficult fight against environmental groups, fishermen and politicians in New England.
Members of Maine’s bipartisan congressional delegation have said they oppose oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Maine because of the potential impacts on the environment and the critically important commercial fishing industry.
In comments filed with the MMS last year, Gov. John Baldacci suggested that coastal Maine does not have appreciable reserves of oil and gas that would be commercially viable. The last lease for the North Atlantic was sold in 1979; eight exploratory wells were drilled, without success.
Baldacci spokesman Dan Cashman said Friday that the governor believes renewable resources, particularly wind power, hold considerable potential but that all energy options need to be considered. Cashman said the governor is waiting for a report from a newly formed ocean energy task force that will examine all possible en-ergy sources along coastal Maine, including offshore drilling.
“He thinks we are in an energy crisis and all options need to be explored before taking anything off the table,” Cashman said.
State Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, is sponsoring legislation for a moratorium on oil and gas drilling off the coast of Maine. While Maine’s territorial authority only extends 3 miles, the state would have considerable say in whether drilling would be allowed in federal waters.
The governors of Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey have also expressed concerns about or opposition to oil and gas drilling off the coasts of their states.
Read the full proposal at www.mms.gov.