Salazar slows offshore-drilling plan

The Bush administration's controversial plan to expand offshore oil and gas drilling was delayed at least six months by the Obama administration.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar suggested that some drilling will eventually be allowed. But he said the agency will give the public until Sept. 23 to comment, instead of the Bush administration's deadline of March 23. The agency will hold public meetings before a decision is made.

Salazar's announcement hinders the drilling schedule announced by the Bush administration on Jan. 16, the last federal workday of its term. That plan, which would have allowed drilling on up to 300 million acres off the U.S. coast, was to have taken effect in mid-2010. It allotted 60 days for public input.

Then-president Bush set the plan in motion in July when the cost of oil soared to nearly $150 a barrel, saying the United States needed to increase domestic energy production. The Bush administration estimated that coastal areas off limits to drilling contain 18 billion barrels of oil and 76 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The Bush administration's plan "was a headlong rush of the worst kind," Salazar said. "It was rigged to force harried decisions based on bad information."

Salazar's announcement came as a relief to officials in the energy industry, who feared that he would call for a renewal of a presidential moratorium on drilling off the coast. Bush allowed the moratorium to expire last summer.

"We don't see this as a bad thing," said Nicolette Nye, spokeswoman for the National Ocean Industries Association, which promotes offshore drilling. "We're pleased the new administration is continuing with the … process."

Environmentalists, who want the moratorium reinstated, were disappointed Tuesday. Without a ban, "our coasts and oceans will be more vulnerable to oil damage than they have been since the Exxon Valdez spill," said Jacqueline Savitz of Oceana, an environmental group.

The Bush administration's plan opened up drilling along the California coast and the entire Eastern seaboard. Those areas have not seen new energy exploration for as many as 26 years because of congressional and presidential protections. Congress allowed its moratorium to lapse last year.

Salazar tried to allay environmental concerns while making it clear that energy exploration is valuable. "What this shows is a dramatic change from the last eight years … which was, 'Drill, drill, drill,' " he said. However, he said, "The oil and gas industry should not see the Obama administration as their enemy."

The administration also announced it will re-evaluate a rule published by the Bush administration Jan. 15 that would make it easier to modify their power plants without adding pollution controls.