Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Wednesday afternoon that the Obama administration will not allow offshore oil drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico or off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts as part of the next five-year drilling plan, reversing two key policy changes President Obama announced in late March.
President Obama talks about endorsing expansion of offshore drilling. (Footage via http://www.whitehouse.gov/The Washington Post)
“We are adjusting our strategy in areas where there are no active leases,” Salazar told reporters in a phone call, adding that the administration has decided “not expand to new areas at this time” and instead “focus and expand our critical resources on areas that are currently active” when it comes to oil and gas drilling.
In March–less than a month before the BP oil spill–Obama and Salazar said they would open up the eastern Gulf and parts of the Atlantic, including off the coast of Virginia, to offshore oil and gas exploration. On both of those new areas, the administration said it would start scoping to see if oil and gas drilling would be suitable. The eastern Gulf remains closed to drilling under a congressional moratorium, but the White House indicated it would press to lift the moratorium if necessary.
Wednesday’s announcement is sure to please environmentalists while angering oil and gas companies as well as some lawmakers from both parties who have pressed for continued offshore energy exploration in the wake of massive Gulf of Mexico spill.
Salazar said while the administration will still allow offshore drilling in both the central and western Gulf of Mexico and in the Arctic, it will delay lease sales planned for March and August in the gulf to conduct additional environmental reviews, and will prepare a new environmental assessment of Shell’s proposal to drill in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea next year. Shell officials warned that the additional review could jeopardize its ability to explore for oil and gas in the Arctic in 2011.
Marilyn Heiman, director of offshore energy reform for the Pew Environment Group, welcomed the announcement but questioned why the administration is still leaving open the possibility of leasing areas in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas between 2012 and 2017.
“Much more needs to be done to ensure there is adequate spill response capability that is proven to work in Arctic conditions before drilling can be considered,” she said.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who has consistently pushed to restrict drilling in the eastern gulf, also welcomed the news. Salazar called the senator Wednesday morning, according to Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin, but the two men did not speak yet because Nelson is chairing a hearing.
“Drilling off Florida’s Gulf coast is banned at least until 2022, under a 2006 law passed by Senator Nelson,” McLaughlin said. “The senator is pleased the White House has decided rightly to keep the area off-limits. He hopes Florida’s next governor and the Legislature similarly will commit to protecting the state’s tourism economy and unique environment.”
Activists such as Margie Alt, executive director of Environment America, also praised the administration’s plan, saying, “Today, anyone who loves our beaches, who fishes in the ocean or who depends on a healthy coastal economy can thank the Obama administration for protecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the west coast of Florida from oil drilling. The BP disaster earlier this year was a tragic reminder that drilling is a dirty and dangerous business. The only way to truly keep our coasts and ocean ecosystems safe is to keep them rig free.”
But the move could spark a backlash from business interests as well from both many congressional Republicans and conservative Democrats such as Sen. Manry Landrieu, who argue that curbing offshore energy exploration could exacerbate the nation’s economic woes.
Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, said in a statement, “The Administration is sending a message to America’s oil and gas industry: take your capital, technology, and jobs somewhere else.”
Rep. Doc Hastings (Wash.), the top Republican on the House Resources Committee, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon accusing the administration of “taking the wrong approach in responding to the BP spill and creating energy and energy jobs in this country. The answer isn’t to give up and say, ‘America can’t figure it out, we’ll rely on other countries to produce our energy.’ The answer is to find out what went wrong and make effective, timely reforms to ensure that U.S. offshore drilling is the safest in the world.”