The Gulf of Mexico is the only US offshore region where lease sales have been held with any consistency-but not the eastern gulf.
The US Minerals Management Service's current 5-year leasing program calls for Sale 181 to offer eastern gulf tracts in December 2001.
In drafting that program, MMS reached agreement with the affected states to consider leasing tracts within a 1,033-block, 5.9-million-acre area.
To satisfy Alabama, MMS will not offer 22 blocks between 3 and 15 miles of its shoreline. To appease Florida's environmental concerns, no tracts within 100 miles of its coast will be offered.
That doesn't mean the sale won't be opposed. There is much antileasing sentiment in Florida, and members of Congress could seek to block the sale by denying MMS the funds to hold it.
The last eastern gulf sale was held in November 1988. MMS scheduled a sale for 1995, but Congress blocked it with a funding moratorium.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton withdrew all remaining eastern gulf tracts outside the Sale 181 planning area from leasing until 2012.
Oil companies believe the eastern gulf has some good prospects, although it is more lightly drilled than the central and western gulf.
Nearly 40 blocks in the Sale 181 planning area are under lease. Several fields are in production or under development. Shallower areas are believed to be gas-prone, while deeper waters may contain crude trends-and 90% of Sale 181's acreage is in 400 m or more of water.
Last year, seven oil industry associations took the unusual step of forming a task force to ensure that the sale occurs on schedule and that lease stipulations are reasonable.
Earl Sims, government relations manager for Vastar Resources Inc., Houston, heads the task force.
Sims said, "We felt there were some issues to be played out regarding the sale, and we didn't want to sit back and wait for the issues to come to us. We wanted to be working on them ahead of time."
So far, most of the task force's efforts have been toward resolving potential objections from the US military.
Warplanes from Eglin Air Force Base outside Pensacola, Fla., use much of the Sale 181 planning area for training exercises.
There could be additional problems with coastal states, although they basically agreed to the parameters for Sale 181 when MMS prepared its leasing schedule.
The industry task force is working with MMS, which is scheduled to issue an environmental impact statement for the sale later this year.
And there is always the possibility that federal legislation could be introduced to block the sale this year or next.
Sims said, "This shouldn't become an issue in the presidential election campaign, and we would prefer it didn't.
"We think it's important that Sale 181 be held, because the nation needs more oil and gas reserves.
"Also, the oil industry has circled its wagons around the central and western gulf. We have to break out to something else. We think Sale 181 is a strategic step to increase industry access to Outer Continental Shelf lands."