- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 17, 2009

From combined dispatches

Federal agencies on Friday called for widespread oil and gas drilling off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts for the first time in decades and rejected high-profile opponents’ arguments that wind turbines would damage the environment off Cape Cod - issues the new Obama administration will tackle.

An Interior Department proposal, issued in the Bush administration’s final days, calls for oil and gas leases to be made available within two to six years “in areas of hydrocarbon potential” from New England to Florida and off the length of California.

Until recently, these regions of the Outer Continental Shelf have been declared off limits to drilling by Congress and by presidential executive order. It also outlined lease plans off Alaska including the fish-rich waters of Bristol Bay.

It will be up to President-elect Barack Obama whether to proceed with Interior’s revised five-year leasing plan that would cover 2010 through 2015. He could scale it back or scrap it. Interior officials said they wanted to give the next administration maximum flexibility to expand offshore drilling.

Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, Mr. Obama’s choice for interior secretary, has indicated that he likely will want to scale back the Bush administration’s offshore drilling agenda.

“There are places in the Outer Continental Shelf that are appropriate for drilling. There may be other places that are off limits,” Mr. Salazar said Thursday during his Senate confirmation hearing. “We need to have a thoughtful process as we go forward.”

The draft plan was attacked by marine conservation groups, but praised by industry.

Jacqueline Savitz of Oceana, a marine protection advocacy group, called the plan an “11th hour attempt to sell out our oceans” and urged the Obama administration to reject it. The American Petroleum Institute, which represents major oil companies, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in statements urged Mr. 0bama to embrace the plan that they said will make available needed new energy resources.

Oil and gas companies “have proven they can develop resources in an environmentally safe way,” institute President Jack Gerard said.

Congressional Democrats have indicated that while they have no intention of returning to the broad drilling bans that covered 85 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf, some areas — especially off California and the Northeast — are likely to again be protected from energy development.

In Massachusetts, a bitter fight over the proposed wind farm has lasted more than seven years. Its foes, including Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy argue that the wind farm would kill birds, endanger sea life and harm the scenic area’s tourism and fishing industries.

But the new Minerals Management Service report said developer Cape Wind Associates’ plans pose no major environmental problems.

The new Obama administration will decide the project’s fate. Mr. Obama, who wants to double alternative energy production over the next three years, was visiting an Ohio company that makes parts for wind turbines Friday. He takes office Tuesday.

“We’re handing off to the next administration,” said Minerals Management Service director Randall Luthi. “It is up to them to decide.”

Supporters say the project will provide cheaper energy, reduce pollution and create green jobs. Various federal and state agencies have been reviewing the proposal for 130 windmills across 25 miles of federal waters in Nantucket Sound since 2001.

Cape Wind has pitted two of the most powerful politicians in Massachusetts against each other. Both are strong Obama supporters.

Mr. Kennedy, whose family’s Hyannis Port compound would have a clear view of the farm, has tried to derail the project in Congress, citing risks to fishing, navigation, aviation and the sanctuary of Nantucket Sound. On Friday, Mr. Kennedy criticized the agency’s report and said the fight wasn’t over.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a close ally of Mr. Obama who wants his state to be a leader in alternative energy, has been a strong Cape Wind backer.

The developers, who have estimated the project’s cost at $1.2 billion, hope the wind farm will be operational by the end of 2011. They say it could provide up to 75 percent of Cape Cod’s power demands.

The turbines would stand 440 feet above sea level when the tallest blades are pointing straight up.

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