WASHINGTON — Just weeks into his presidency, President Barack Obama has moved right past the should-we-drill-offshore question and plunged into a new debate about how best to tap resources on the Outer Continental Shelf.
With the lifting of the moratorium against offshore drilling last year, some offshore drilling almost certainly will occur. But now the conversation has changed. Democrats in power talk about a more complex set of energy programs, which could include wind farms or ways to capture wind currents.
The results could have significant impact off the East Coast. Its ocean floors have been coveted for the oil and gas that companies believe rest underground. And the gales that blow across its shorelines could hold some of the nation's greatest potential for wind energy.
Obama said he's ready to consider all those possibilities -- but only as part of a larger program.
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"Offshore drilling as part of a comprehensive energy strategy may make sense," Obama said in a White House interview last week with McClatchy.
"In isolation, it's short-sighted," Obama said. "I hold out for a more comprehensive strategy before I sign off on whole-hog drilling offshore."
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced last week that he is developing a new energy policy for the Outer Continental Shelf, delaying by six months a drilling plan pushed through by President George W. Bush just days before leaving office.
Congress began hearings Wednesday on the viability of offshore drilling, gathering information from environmental groups and local leaders.
Although research shows that drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf would have only minimal impact on energy prices, it remains popular among the public.
Last fall, Bush lifted the presidential moratorium on drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines that had been in place since his father's presidency. Congress, reeling from $4-a-gallon gasoline, followed suit by allowing its version of the ban to expire.
Given the economic and political climate, the drilling ban might be gone for good, said Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the Democratic chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
"We may be in a situation where the ship has already sailed," Rahall said last week at the first of three hearings he will hold on offshore drilling.
But some in favor of drilling say Democrats in power aren't doing enough.
"It is entirely possible that America could multiply our undiscovered resources in the Atlantic many times over," said Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, the top Republican on the House resources panel. "Without further exploration it is impossible to tell exactly what amount of oil and gas reserves the United States is neglecting."
Salazar told reporters last week that he welcomes oil and gas companies' involvement, but he wants to tap all the ocean's resources to develop energy.
"The Outer Continental Shelf will play a critical role in ensuring that America gains energy independence," Salazar said.
Last week, he announced a six-month delay in the Bush administration's new five-year drilling plan. That proposal includes the planned lease sale in 2011 of acreage off Virginia's coast.
Also last week, Salazar ordered a 45-day review of all the potential sources of energy off the coastline. He then plans to conduct four public meetings around the country, including in the mid-Atlantic.
Salazar also pledged to develop final rules in the coming months for renewable offshore resources -- including wind, waves and tidal currents. That speeds a process he said had been delayed.
Science shows the country's best offshore wind resources can be found in the mid-Atlantic between Delaware and North Carolina, Salazar said. That could make the acreage off the Outer Banks a prime possibility for wind farms.
Farther north in the mid-Atlantic, companies in Massachusetts and Delaware are working on developing wind farms offshore, getting closer to planting rows of turbines that could tower up to 100 meters tall. Such farms are found in Europe, but none exist in the United States.
A Massachusetts company called Cape Wind recently won some permits to plant a wind farm off the coastline there, which could make it the first in the country. Company leaders say their work could pave the way for other such companies along the Atlantic, although the recession makes it tough to borrow money to build such projects.
"I think it's going to be easier to develop wind projects, whether it's off the coast of Massachusetts or off the coast of North Carolina," said Mark Rodgers, spokesman for Cape Wind.
The U.S. Department of Energy has made it a goal to have one-fifth of the nation's electricity come from wind in the next 25 years.
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