The federal government is on track to sell oil and gas leases in the central Gulf of Mexico next spring, after completing a new environmental analysis of the region prompted by the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
According to a notice set to appear in Friday’s Federal Register and announced Wednesday, drilling regulators have completed a draft of a supplemental environmental impact statement, or SEIS, that paves the way for the planned lease sale next year.
The auction of potentially attractive tracts in the central Gulf — near the site of the Macondo well blowout — had been postponed because of the oil spill.
Wednesday’s announcement, though, sends a signal the sale will take place next spring, before the June 30 end date for the current five-year plan for leasing the Outer Continental Shelf.
The move “appears consistent with signals the agency has been sending about holding a central Gulf lease sale prior to the end of the current program,” said attorney Michael Olsen, a former Interior Department official with Bracewell & Giuliani.
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement is working on a separate track planning a sale of leases in the western Gulf of Mexico that generally are viewed as less commercially attractive.
“The analyses contained in this draft SEIS will allow us to make objective, science-based decisions regarding offshore energy exploration, development and production,” said Michael Bromwich, the ocean energy bureau director.
The new analysis updates an older environmental impact statement conducted before last year’s spill. Lars Herbst, the head of the ocean energy bureau’s Gulf of Mexico region, said the study was necessary because of “potential changes to the baseline conditions” as a result of the spill.
Before the spill, the government was expected to hold Lease Sale 216 in 2011 and a separate sale — 222 — in 2012. Now, the ocean energy bureau is combining the two auctions.
The area up for lease — the central planning area in the Gulf of Mexico — covers 63 million acres off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. All of the territory is in deep water — as much as 11,345 feet.
The government estimates that 1.624 billion barrels of oil and 3.332 trillion cubic feet of natural gas could be developed as a result of the sale.
By publishing the draft SEIS notice, the government is kicking off a 45-day public comment period, with the ocean energy bureau using feedback to hone the final SEIS. There are other steps in the leasing process, including a proposed “notice of sale,” that is set to be made public about four to five months before the auction.
The public can weigh in on the environmental study in writing and at public meetings planned for August.