Obama lifts 20-year moratorium on offshore drilling for parts of the US continental shelf while banning it on others

NEW YORK – In a reversal of a 20 year moratorium, President Barack Obama will open vast swathes of water along the Atlantic coast line, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska to oil and natural gas drilling, many for the first time, while at the same time rejecting some sites that had been proposes for Alaska, California and Oregon.

The proposal — a compromise that will please oil companies and domestic drilling advocates but anger some residents of affected states and many environmental organizations — would end a longstanding moratorium on oil exploration along the East Coast from the northern tip of Delaware to the central coast of Florida, covering 675,825 square kilometres of ocean.

Under the plan, the coastline from New Jersey northward would remain closed to all oil and gas activity. So would the Pacific Coast, from Mexico to the Canadian border.

The environmentally sensitive Bristol Bay in south western Alaska would be protected and no drilling would be allowed under the plan, officials told US media. Bristol bay – one area touted by the Bush Administration for offshore drilling – is home to major Alaskan Fisheries and populations of endangered whales.

Large tracts in the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska — nearly 538,231 square kilometres — would be eligible for exploration and drilling after extensive studies.

Obama move protects Arctic waters

“Bellona praises the Obama administration for proceeding cautiously in the Arctic Ocean by ordering more scientific analysis before opening it up for exploration,” said Jonathan Temple, director of Bellona USA.

“It’s critically important that this environmentally sensitive region is protected, he said,”

Actual drilling in much of the newly opened areas, if it takes place, would not begin for years, Congressional staffers told Bellona Web.

Obama was set to announce the new drilling policy Wednesday at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. White House officials are pitching the changes as ways to reduce US reliance on foreign oil and create jobs – both politically popular ideas. Obama’s decisions also could help secure support for a climate change bill languishing in Congress.

The president’s drilling plans run through 2017. The likely scope and details of the proposals represent compromises that risk angering energy companies and environmentalists alike. The proposals will be open for public comment for several months, then will be finalized by the administration.

Offshore drilling no big surprise

Yet, though the reversal of the two-decade old policy against offshore drilling may come at the disgruntlement of some environmentalists, Obama has hinted broadly both during his campaign and throughout his tenure as presidency that new offshore drilling for the purposes of US energy independence would soon be in the offing.

As long ago as February 2009, a little over a month into his presidency, Obama said US energy priorities would not be held “hostage to dwindling resources, hostile regimes, and a warming planet” – a direct swipe at the oil-rich Middle East so cosseted by the Bush Administration.

The plan has also been hinted at for months, both in Obama’s State of the Union address, and in policy circles in Congress that have proposed the measure as a way of prying the US energy and climate bill forward.

Obama’s State of the Union address in January offered both the sour and the sweet to the US environmental community, pushing for independent oil drilling, massive loan guarantees to nuclear power, as well as significant investments in biofuel technologies and carbon capture and storage.

“It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development,” Obama said during his State of the Union address.

Nonetheless, the administration has held its cards on offshore drilling close to its chest, perhaps in anticipation of controversy. White House and Interior Department officials began briefing members of Congress and local officials in affected states late Tuesday, Congressional staffers told Bellona Web Wednesday.

But while Obama is apparently staking out a middle ground on environmental issues, the sheer breadth of the offshore drilling decision will take some of his supporters aback. Politically it also may fail to gain him support for a climate bill from undecided senators close to the oil industry, like Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, or Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana.

Under the new plan, Obama will be allowing an expansion in Alaska’s Cook Inlet to go forward. In addition, the Interior Department has prepared a plan to add drilling platforms in the eastern Gulf of Mexico if Congress allows that moratorium to expire, Congressional staffers told Bellona Web on Wednesday.  

Lawmakers in 2008 allowed a similar moratorium to expire. At the time President Bush lifted the ban, which opened the door to Obama’s change in policy.

Under Obama’s plan, drilling could take place 125 miles (200 kilometres) from Florida’s Gulf coastline if lawmakers allow the moratorium to expire. Drilling already takes place in western and central areas in the Gulf of Mexico, the Associate Press reported and Congressional staffers confirmed to Bellona Web.

Senate to take up climate bill soon

The Senate is expected to take up a climate bill in the next few weeks — the last chance to enact such legislation before midterm election concerns take over.

Obama and his allies in the Senate have already made concessions on coal and nuclear power to try to win votes from Republicans and moderate Democrats. The new plan now grants one of the biggest items on the oil industry’s wish list — access to vast areas of the Outer Continental Shelf for drilling.

But even as Obama curries favour with pro-drilling interests, he risks a backlash from some coastal governors, senators and environmental advocates, who say that the relatively small amounts of oil to be gained in the offshore areas are not worth the environmental risks.

The first lease sale off the coast of Virginia could occur as early as next year in a triangular tract 50 miles off the coast that had already been approved for development but was held up by a court challenge and additional Interior Department review, White House officials told the New York Times.

But as a result of the Obama decision, the Interior Department will spend several years conducting geologic and environmental studies along the rest of the southern and central Atlantic Seaboard. If a tract is deemed suitable for development, it is listed for sale in a competitive bidding system. The next lease sales — if any are authorized by the Interior Department — would not be held before 2012, said the paper.

It is not known how much potential fuel lies in the areas opened to exploration, although according to Interior Department estimates there could be as much as a three-year supply of recoverable oil and more than two years’ worth of natural gas, at current rates of consumption. But those estimates are based on seismic data that is, in some cases, more than 30 years old.

At the Wednesday event, Obama is also expected to announce two other initiatives to reduce oil imports, an agreement between the Pentagon and the Agriculture Department to use more biofuels in military vehicles and the purchase of thousands of hybrid vehicles for the federal motor pool, the Times said.