McLean, VA (written by Wendy Koch/USA Today) -- To spur domestic energy production and quiet GOP critics, the Obama administration announced Thursday that it's opening more areas in the Arctic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling.
Angering some environmentalists, the Department of Interior plans 15 potential lease sales from 2012 to 2017, including 12 in the Gulf of Mexico and three off the coast of Alaska in the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea and Cook Inlet Planning Areas. It's on track to hold the first sale later this year.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the "targeted" leasing strategy will put a few sensitive areas off-limits to minimize environmental risks. They include two whaling areas in Beaufort, a hunting and fishing area in Chukchi near Barrow, Alaska, and a 25-mile buffer area near Chukchi's coast.
"This plan is a key part of the president's "all of the above" energy strategy, Salazar told reporters Thursday. He called it a "smart" and aggressive" way to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
Some environmentalists are opposed. "The plan is too aggressive, too broad and too rushed," Regan Nelson, senior oceans advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. "We believe an array of critical safety and environmental issues must be addressed first before America puts more coastal areas at risk."
Nelson argues the U.S., instead of allowing more oil and gas drilling, should be promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
"Industry has stepped up" to make safety and environmental improvements after BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, said Tommy Beaudreau, director of the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Beaudreau, joining Salazar at the press conference, said the spill -- the largest in U.S. history -- led to a "crisis of confidence" that prompted aggressive and successful reforms. On Monday, for example, Interior officials noted that Shell successfully tested a new oil spill containment device in Washington State's Puget Sound.
Earlier this week, Salazar said that Shell will likely win federal approval soon to begin drilling exploratory wells off the North Slope of Alaska, and earlier this month, his department held a lease sale for nearly 39 million acres in the Central Gulf of Mexico that attracted more than $1.7 billion in bids.
On Tuesday, U.S. officials announced that the Army Corps of Engineers had approved permits for Calgary-based TransCanada to build 115 miles of new pipeline from an oil depot in Cushing, Okla., to refineries on the Gulf Coast.