imageWASHINGTON: The US Department of the Interior took its first steps on Friday to develop the next five-year schedule of offshore oil and gas lease sales.

Interior issued a request for information and comments on the oil and gas leasing program for US coastal waters to run from 2017 to 2022, kicking off a 45-day comment period.

The planning process for federal waters surrounding the United States known as the outer continental shelf will take up to three years to complete, the agency said.

The Interior Department is not bound to a particular course of action but by law must evaluate all parts of the outer continental shelf for possible leasing. That could open new areas to oil and gas drilling, including those off the US East Coast.

“The development of the next five-year program will be a thorough and open process that incorporates stakeholder input and uses the best available science," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement.

US law requires the interior secretary, through the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, to prepare and maintain a schedule of oil and gas lease sales in federal waters, indicating the size, timing and location of auctions that would best meet national energy needs.

The secretary is required to balance environmental impacts, discovery of oil and gas, and adverse effects on the coastal zone.

The current five-year program expires in August 2017 and schedules 15 potential lease sales in six planning areas judged to have the greatest resource potential.

BOEM has held five sales thus far, including annual auctions in the Central and Western Gulf of Mexico and a single sale in the Eastern Gulf.

Those auctions offered more than 60 million offshore acres and leased 4.3 million, generating more than $2.3 billion in high bids. A sixth lease sale in August 2014 will offer 21 million OCS acres in the Western Gulf of Mexico.

Senator Mary Landrieu, chair of the Senate Energy Committee, called on the Interior Department to expand offshore oil and gas exploration in the new plan to boost US energy independence and generate revenue for states.

“We need to open more areas to offshore oil and gas exploration, not fewer. We need to press forward, not scale back," said Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat expected to have a tough re-election battle in November.

Oceana, a non-profit group that focuses on ocean conservation, said it fears the next five-year plan could open waters off the Atlantic Coast to development and the risk of oil spills like BP's Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

“The Gulf is a devastating example of why we should not open new areas like the Atlantic to offshore drilling," said Oceana campaign director Claire Douglass.