* Drilling plan could spark criticism from GOP, industry
* U.S. Gulf Coast still important exploration area
By Russ Blinch
WASHINGTON, June 26 (Reuters) - The Obama Administration will release its final, five-year blueprint for offshore drilling o n T hursday and is expected to offer a go-slow approach to Arctic drilling and keep restricting rigs from operating off the east and west coasts of the country.
The drilling plan is likely to draw criticism from Republicans on the campaign trail as too restrictive, while sparking concern from environmentalists that drilling off Alaska is too risky.
The oil and gas industry has criticized the Obama administration for tightening regulation of offshore drilling since the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The spill also prompted the administration to backtrack on plans to open areas off the Atlantic coast to drilling.
The Interior department said the plan to be unveiled on Thursday was part of President Barack Obama's "all-of-the-above" strategy that also seeks to stimulate the renewable energy industry.
The plan runs to 2017 and is expected to be similar to an earlier version released by the Interior Department late last year, which also continues to emphasize drilling off the Gulf Coast, according to Oceana, an environmental advocacy group.
But the new plan would likely delay the Alaskan lease sales to the final years of the plan in order to allow for more scientific and environmental studies.
Environmentalists like the idea of more studies but still strongly oppose drilling in the Arctic where the concern is the environment is too harsh and dangerous for exploration, especially after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf.
"The Arctic is the worst possible place where we can be producing oil and gas," said Jacqueline Savitz, the North American vice president for Oceana.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently flagged that Alaska would remain an important energy source for the United States, but cautioned drilling must proceed slowly to protect the environment.
"We believe we have the rules and the framework we have in place to move forward with cautious exploration," Salazar told Reuters during a visit to Norway. "However, development of the Arctic would still be many years away and additional science has to be developed. And the infrastructure necessary for development is still years away."
Royal Dutch Shell is in the last stages of federal permitting to drill offshore Alaska in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas this summer in a plan that has been strongly opposed by environmentalists.
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