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In shift, Obama takes steps to speed domestic drilling

New exploration off Atlantic coast may be included

By John M. Broder
New York Times / May 15, 2011

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WASHINGTON — President Obama, facing voter anger over high gasoline prices and complaints from Republicans and business leaders that his policies are restricting the development of domestic energy resources, announced yesterday that he was taking several steps to speed oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters.

It was at least a partial concession to his critics at a time when consumers are paying near-record prices at the gas pump.

The Republican-led House passed three bills in the last 10 days that would significantly expand and accelerate US oil development, saying the administration was driving up gas prices and preventing job creation with antidrilling policies.

Administration officials said the president’s announcement, which included plans for expanded drilling in Alaska and the prospect of new exploration off the Atlantic coast, was intended in part to answer these arguments, signal flexibility, and demonstrate Obama’s commitment to reducing oil imports by increasing domestic production.

But the policies announced yesterday would not have an immediate effect on supply or prices, nor would they quickly open any new areas to drilling.

In his weekly radio and Internet address, the president said the administration would begin to hold annual auctions for oil and gas leases in the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, a 23-million-acre tract on the North Slope of Alaska. The move comes after years of demands for the auctions by industry executives and Alaska’s two senators, Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and Mark Begich, a Democrat.

The administration will also accelerate a review of the environmental impact of possible drilling off the southern and central Atlantic coast and will consider making some areas available for exploration. The move is a change from current policy, which puts the entire Atlantic seaboard off-limits to drilling until at least 2018.

The president said he would extend leases already granted for drilling in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico that had been frozen after last year’s BP spill. The extension will allow companies time to meet new safety and environmental standards without having to worry about their leases expiring.

And the government will provide incentives for oil companies to more quickly exploit leases they already hold. Tens of millions of acres onshore and offshore are under lease but have not been developed.

The moves come after the House passed a series of bills that would force the administration to move much further and faster to open public lands and waters to oil and gas development.

Responding to the shift by the administration, Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, said, “The president just conceded what his party on Capitol Hill still denies: more American energy production will lower costs and create jobs.’’