- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Facing gas prices near $4 a gallon and a pivotal national election, congressional Democrats allowed a ban on offshore drilling to lapse in September

But times change, and on Tuesday, the Obama administration - with gas prices roughly half what they were and many Democrats’ having been swept into office - blocked offshore drilling plans put in place at the last minute by the Bush administration, including plans to open the national outer continental shelf for drilling.

Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar also announced last week that his agency would block drilling on public lands in Utah, criticizing the Bush administration for releasing its offshore drilling plan just days before leaving office.

“It was a headlong rush of the worst kind,” he said. “It was a process rigged to force hurried decisions based on bad information. It was a process tilted toward the usual energy players while renewable energy companies and the interests of American consumers and taxpayers were overlooked.”

Mr. Salazar said he plans to hold four meetings nationwide as he considers how to rewrite the nation’s five-year offshore drilling plan and has extended the public-comment period six months, pushing any action well into the fall.

A former Bush administration staffer said the extended review process needlessly drags out an already thorough process.

“Given the domestic-supply challenges we face, it’s hard to imagine what more can be accomplished by extending the comment period,” said Michael D. Olsen, a former Interior Department staffer now working with the Bracewell & Giuliani law firm.

Offshore oil exploration and drilling became a tough topic for Democrats during the 2008 elections, as gas prices topped $4 a gallon and public opinion polls showed broad support for expanded domestic oil production - a prospect opposed by many environmental groups at the core of their base.

The congressional moratorium, which had been in place since 1982, lapsed just months after President Bush lifted an executive order banning offshore drilling.

Mr. Salazar also chastised the Bush administration’s snubbing of offshore wind farms, saying that offshore renewable energy sources would be included in the Obama administration’s new energy plans.

“For them, it was oil and gas or nothing,” he said of the Bush administration.

President Obama has said that he supports domestic oil exploration and production as part of a larger plan to break the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, but oil companies and Republican leaders have been skittish since he took office.

Environmental groups said that they were encouraged by Mr. Salazar’s announcement but that offshore drilling should be banned outright.

“Without a new 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, a nonprofit that tracks the health of the oceans. “Saying ‘no’ to offshore drilling is the only way to keep sensitive ocean and coastal areas from becoming oiled industrial zones, and to put a lid on climate change by reducing our use of fossil fuels.”