Obama restores eastern Gulf oil drilling ban
BP’s oil well in the Gulf of Mexico is dead, but the political fallout is very much alive.
The Obama administration said it won’t open up new areas of the eastern Gulf and Atlantic seaboard to drilling, reversing a decision to hunt for oil and gas that the president himself announced three weeks before the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
“We are adjusting our strategy,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday.
Salazar said the BP spill taught officials a number of lessons, “most importantly that we need to proceed with caution.”
The politics of the decision were clear. The ban satisfies environmental interests and Democratic lawmakers along both coasts, particularly in Florida, a crucial 2012 swing state where the drilling proposal was unpopular.
But the oil and gas industry and many Republicans said the Obama administration was stifling domestic oil production and contradicting the will of recession-weary voters eager for new jobs.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said Obama’s plan would lock up vast portions of America’s offshore energy resources, costing jobs and inflicting long-term economic harm. Hastings, who takes over next month as chairman of the House Natural Resources panel, said the BP spill shouldn’t disrupt plans to develop U.S. oil and gas resources.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican who has criticized the Obama administration’s response to the spill and its five-month deepwater drilling moratorium, expressed deep disappointment. “This makes us even more dependent on foreign countries for our energy,” he said.
And Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who supports offshore drilling, was preparing to work with GOP Gov. Robert McDonnell and other officials to re-examine the decision, especially as it applies to Virginia, said Kevin Hall, a Warner spokesman.
The announcement reverses a March plan that would have authorized officials to explore the potential for drilling from Delaware to central Florida, plus the northern waters of Alaska. The new approach allows drilling in Alaska, but officials said they will move cautiously before approving any leases. The focus instead will be on areas with active leases in the central and western Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska.
Under the revised plan, the Interior Department will not propose any new oil drilling in the Atlantic Ocean and eastern Gulf for at least the next seven years. Already planned lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico will be delayed until late 2011 or early 2012, Salazar said.
The new plan does not affect the Pacific seaboard, which will remain off-limits to drilling in federal waters.
Environmental groups cheered the decision. They say oil and gas reserves off the Atlantic Coast are not worth the risk to commercial fishing and tourism destinations such as Virginia Beach and the Chesapeake Bay. According to government estimates, reserves off Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia and north Florida amount to about three months of supply at current U.S. consumption rates.
“There is no safe way to drill for oil and gas, and we don’t want to see another spill,” said Jacqueline Savitz at the advocacy group Oceana.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who championed a ban on East Coast drilling, called it a victory for his state’s coastline. “Auctioning off the Jersey shore to oil companies would do nothing to reduce prices at the pump, but it would put our multibillion-dollar tourism and fishing industries at risk,” he said.
Exxon Mobil executive Kenneth Cohen countered that the government decision ignored the industry’s improving safety performance. He said the Gulf spill “resulted from practices far outside industry norms.”
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican turned independent, once considered opening state waters to drilling, but changed his mind after the BP spill. He wasn’t surprised by the administration’s reversal.
“If that’s not a wake-up call, I don’t know what would be,” Crist said.