Comment Period For Offshore Drilling Ends Friday

The federal government is developing its offshore oil and gas leasing plan for a 5-year period that begins in 2017. Right now most of the activity is in the Gulf of Mexico.

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There are very strict limits on where oil and gas companies can drill offshore. Most of the activity is in the Gulf of Mexico. But the Obama administration is weighing whether to expand offshore drilling to other places, and that includes the Atlantic Coast. For much of this summer, the government has been collecting comments from the oil industry, from states, environmental groups and also the public. The deadline to submit comments is today. NPR's Jeff Brady has more.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Government planning processes can be pretty dry. But this one is getting a lot of interest, both from the oil industry and environmental groups. An agency called the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is just starting to develop a five-year plan. It'll tell oil companies where they can bid for federal leases to drill offshore starting in 2017. The oil industry is arguing the government should open up more areas. Erik Milito is an executive with the American Petroleum Institute

ERIK MILITO: We haven't had the ability to really look at the Atlantic or the Pacific in about 30 years now. So what we'd like to do is have an opportunity to get out there and just see what's there - see if we have oil and natural gas.

BRADY: Milito says he's encouraged by an Obama administration decision this year to allow seismic surveys off the Atlantic coast. That's a first step to searching for petroleum deep under the seafloor. If oil and gas is found there, it could extend the country's current drilling boom. And Milito says that has been good for the economy.

MILITO: From 2007 to 2012, any exploration and production side - jobs actually increased at a 40 percent rate, while the rest of the economy saw jobs at really a flat rate.

BRADY: And Milito points out increasing production is reducing the U.S. trade deficit because the country is importing less crude. The governments also hear from environmental groups who have a very different message; they point to BP's 2010 accident and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. While regulators in the industry have made some big changes to improve safety, other recommendations have languished in Congress. A presidential commission offered a series of recommendations, including more money to regulate the industry and increasing the $75-million cap on liability for spills. Lois Epstein is with the Wilderness Society.

LOIS EPSTEIN: Congress hasn't done what those commissions recommended. And it's been four years since the BP spill, and we're just not ready.

BRADY: Epstein says more of those changes should be made before drilling is allowed. She hopes the government will not open up new areas off the Northern coast of Alaska. While companies already drilling in the Arctic say they're ready if a spill happens, Epstein is not convinced. And she says extracting and burning the oil contained there presents other problems.

EPSTEIN: The Arctic Ocean could be a very significant source of additional greenhouse gases worldwide.

BRADY: Comments like this are just a sampling of what the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is receiving now. By the middle of this week, the Bureau says it had 235,000 comments, most of those from letters supporting drilling along the Atlantic Coast. The agency says it will likely be three years before a final plan is released. Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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