WASHINGTON -- The federal government will hold lease sales next month to open up 45 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas exploration, the Obama administration announced Thursday.
The sales mark the ninth and 10th offshore auctions as part of the administration's five-year Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program.
More than 60 million acres were offered in the first eight auctions, which drew $3 billion in high bids, according to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
The new auctions - Central Planning Area Lease Sale 241 and Eastern Planning Area Lease Sale 226 - will be March 23 in New Orleans.
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"These lease sales continue the president's commitment to create jobs through the safe and responsible exploration and development of the nation's domestic energy resources," said a statement from bureau director Abigail Ross Hopper. "As an important component of the U.S. energy portfolio, the Gulf of Mexico holds vast energy resources that can continue to spur economic opportunities for Gulf-producing states as well as further reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil."
Offshore drilling remains controversial among some Gulf states. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, made a floor speech this month blasting a Republican proposal to increase revenue-sharing opportunities for states that allow drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
About 44.3 million acres will be offered in Sale 241, ranging from 9 feet to more than 11,115 feet of water off the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama shores.
Sale 226 covers nearly 600,000 acres from 2,657 feet to 10,213 feet deep. The location is south of eastern Alabama and western Florida, with the nearest point of land some 125 miles northwest in Louisiana.
The sales follow a public comment period and extensive environmental analysis. Sales terms will require lease purchasers to protect biologically sensitive resources, reduce potential adverse effects on protected species and avoid possible conflicts related to energy development in the region.
The Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans environmental group, opposes the plan, citing a failure by the oil and gas industry and government officials to improve the safety of offshore drilling and production, said executive director Cyn Sarthou.
The industry already has more than 23 million acres under lease in the Gulf of Mexico's federal waters, but only 18 percent are producing oil or gas, Sarthou said. That leaves more than 19 million acres of unexploited leases, which Sarthou said was enough to fuel the industry.
"As a region, the Gulf needs to reduce the risk posed by oil and gas development and move away from our reliance on the oil and gas industry by diversifying our economy," Sarthou said.
The terms and conditions for both lease sales are available for viewing.
The proposal, from Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La.,would boost revenue-sharing for Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas.