The Obama administration treaded back into turbulent waters Tuesday, proposing its first national offshore drilling plan since last year's disastrous Gulf oil spill. Unveiled by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the new proposal would schedule 15 lease sales for 2012 through 2017, including 12 in the Gulf of Mexico and three off Alaska's coast.

The plan is less ambitious than one President Obama presented just before the 2010 Gulf spill began, and as Salazar emphasized Tuesday, it's a "cautious" move intended to boost domestic oil and gas production without sacrificing cultural and environmental treasures along the outer continental shelf (OCS).

"Expanding safe and responsible oil and gas production from the OCS is a key component of our comprehensive energy strategy to grow America's energy economy, and will help us continue to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and create jobs here at home," Salazar said in a statement. "This five-year program will make available for development more than three-quarters of undiscovered oil and gas resources estimated on the OCS, including frontier areas such as the Arctic, where we must proceed cautiously, safely and based on the best science available."

Environmental groups and Republican lawmakers were both quick to criticize the announcement, albeit for opposite reasons. The House GOP passed a series of bills earlier this year to allow offshore drilling along much of the East Coast, West Coast, eastern Gulf and Alaska, and the GOP chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee argues the new plan is too restrictive. "No new drilling or new lease sales will occur during President Obama's term in office," Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., tells the Associated Press. "The Obama administration's draft plan places some of the most promising energy resources in the world off-limits."

Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke, on the other hand, calls the decision to expand offshore drilling "a reckless gamble we cannot afford." More than 18 months after the 2010 Gulf spill, she says, Congress hasn't passed any laws to protect workers or the environment from such disasters, and the industry has yet to sufficiently improve its safety measures. "This is just another distraction from our clean energy future," Beinecke says in a statement. "We should be moving toward renewable energy sources that can't spill, run out or destroy entire economies and livelihoods. We need to get the road to a clean energy future and stay there."

In addition to expanding offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, the new plan would open up parts of Alaska's Cook Inlet, Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea, a prospect that Alaska Wilderness League Director Cindy Shogan says "looks a lot like the fast and loose decision making of the past." Environmental groups have long fought oil and gas development in the Arctic Ocean, arguing the extreme conditions make preventing or cleaning up a spill too difficult. Shell Oil paid the U.S. $2.1 billion for oil leases in the Chukchi Sea in 2008 — the most recent time any U.S. waters in Alaska were leased — but it has yet to drill an exploratory well, due to environmental lawsuits and a delayed federal air-pollution permit.

The Interior Department says its plan "reflects the need for a regionally tailored approach to offshore development," and points out that many of the lease sales — especially those in Alaska — would come late in the 2012-2017 period, allowing time for environmental impact studies to be completed. "A key part of safe and responsible development of our oil and gas resources is recognizing that different environments and communities require different approaches and technologies," Deputy Interior Secretary David J. Hayes said in a statement.

The move comes at a pivotal time for the Obama administration's energy agenda. Aside from growing political friction over energy prices and domestic fossil-fuel production, President Obama is also mulling whether to approve or reject a proposed $7 billion, 1,700-mile oil sands pipeline from Canada to Texas. The White House was surrounded by protestors Sunday in a rally against the Keystone XL pipeline, and on Monday it was revealed that the State Department's inspector general will investigate claims of bias in the pipeline's permitting process.

For more information about the Interior Department's proposed offshore drilling plan, check out this PDF fact sheet produced by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Obama plans new drilling for Alaska, Gulf
A new proposal would expand offshore drilling in U.S. waters, but it's drawing fire from supporters as well as critics of the oil and gas industry.