WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is about to kick off the long process of deciding what offshore areas should be auctioned off for oil and gas drilling from 2017 to 2022.
The Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will launch the years-long work to assemble that outer continental shelf leasing plan when it unveils a formal "request for information" on Friday, according to industry officials briefed on the development.
Oil and gas companies, environmentalists and other members of the public then will have about 45 days to weigh in with their comments on what ocean areas should be up for grabs -- delivering feedback that will help guide the bureau's work on the sale schedule.
"It's a big deal," said Erik Milito, upstream director for the American Petroleum Institute. "It's the first step in the process."
Assembling an outer continental shelf leasing schedule involves public meetings around the country, analysis and several public comment periods. Though some steps are defined, regulators can accelerate the process to get to a final blueprint.
So far, industry trade groups, led by the American Petroleum Institute and the National Ocean Industries Association, have pushed the Obama administration to keep all options on the table. In particular, though, they want to see the bureau sell drilling rights in Atlantic waters.
Milito said that the request for information is an invitation for companies to be specific in telling the government where they believe good offshore prospects are located. For trade groups, the likely response is to "be as expansive as possible and not foreclose opportunities for development," he said.
The current five-year plan schedules 15 lease sales before its expiration on Aug. 26, 2017.
But administration officials may be looking to put their mark on a new plan -- and fully implement it -- before President Barack Obama leaves office on Jan. 20, 2017.
Former President George W. Bush adopted a similar tactic, with his Interior Department moving to impose its own leasing plan spanning 2010-2015, effectively replacing another due to expire in 2012. But after Obama's first Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, was sworn in, he scrapped the 2010-2015 Bush-era proposal.
With its formal request for information, the Interior Department now is roughly two months ahead of the typical schedule. Interior issued its request for information for the 2012-2017 plan in August 2005.
Tommy Beaudreau, former director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and now the chief of staff for Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, in May pledged "a very systematic, robust and open process" as the agency collects information about whether to extend oil and gas leasing to the Atlantic Ocean.
Some of those decisions might be guided by first-in-a-generation seismic research aimed at mapping the geological formations below the seafloor off the U.S. Mid-Altantic and South Atlantic coasts. In outlining its preferred approach for those seismic studies in February, the ocean energy bureau paved the way for seismic research conducted with safeguards for marine life, including limits around whale migratory routes.
"We want to have -- assuming it can be done safely and responsibly -- modern seismic information about that area," Beaudreau said in a May interview. "It will inform the significance of the resource potential but also help us design and configure any potential sale."
Interior officials have stressed that seismic data would not have to be in hand before they scheduled lease sales in the Atlantic.
For instance, if Jewell opted to sell drilling rights in the Atlantic Ocean, the ocean energy bureau could plan the auction far enough in advance to ensure it could use geologic data and environmental information to make decisions about what acreage should be available.
Another big question for the Interior Department as it develops the next five-year plan is whether and when to sell drilling rights in waters near Alaska.
By JENNIFER A. DLOUHY