White House Unveils Plan to Open Atlantic Waters to Offshore Oil Drilling
Move to lease large swaths of ocean along east coast and double down in Gulf of Mexico oddly comes in wake of attacks against right for climate change denial
By Suzanne Goldenberg
President Barack Obama pivoted from his goal of fighting climate change on Tuesday, setting out a plan to allow the first oil drilling in Atlantic waters off the US east coast but bar companies from some of the pristine waters off the north coast of Alaska.
photo by Stephen Conn, on Flickr
Arriving a week after the president attacked climate deniers in his State of the Union address, the same week as his use of executive authority to protect huge swaths of Alaskan wilderness and in the shadow of the BP oil spill trial, the proposals could allow the first oil drilling rigs off the Outer Banks of the Carolinas and other tourist destinations near Virginia and Georgia. However, they would not include the whaling grounds and other sensitive areas of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
The Pacific coast, where there is strong objection to drilling from state governors and the public, would remain off-limits. However, the Obama administration’s plan called for doubling down on offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
The plans – which are far from finalized – represent a first step to auctioning off oil leases from 2017 to 2022, the interior secretary, Sally Jewell, told a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.
“We continue to take an all-of-the-above approach to developing domestic energy,” she said.
The draft proposal includes a single potential oil lease in the Atlantic that could potentially extend from Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay, past North and South Carolina and down to Georgia. However, the proposed area represents the maximum that would ever be opened up for drilling, Jewell said, with oil companies forced to remain 50 miles offshore.
Governors in all four states have pushed hard for the Atlantic’s first offshore oil lease sales. Florida, Delaware and Maryland – where governors are opposed to drilling – were not included in the five-year plan.
The proposals envisage 10 lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and three in the Arctic, though Jewell said it was unlikely any lease sale would be held for the Atlantic before 2021.
Obama had sought to open up drilling in the Atlantic in 2010 but pulled back after the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil giant was calling witnesses in its quest to lower pollution fines in front of a New Orleans judge on Tuesday.
Environmental campaigners warned that Tuesday’s proposals out of Washington could expose the Atlantic to the same risks as the BP spill.
“We could be doing to the Atlantic coast what we have done to the Gulf, which is to turn it into an industrial zone,” said Jackie Savitz of the Oceana campaign group. “We would like to think that we can shift our energy paradigm to clean energy so that we don’t have to take every last bit of oil out of the earth, especially out of the oceans.”
Sierra Weaver, an attorney with the Southern Environment Law Centre, said the drilling proposals were misguided – and put the states’ tourism and fishing industries at risk. “We are talking about the Outer Banks. We are talking about Charleston. We are talking about pristine beaches that people know and love and have been taking their families to for generations,” she said.
Campaigners were also disappointed by the prospects for expanded offshore drilling in the Arctic, despite a White House announcement this week that Obama would use his executive authority to protect 12m acres of Alaska wilderness from oil and gas drilling.
“The oil spill isn’t going to recognize those ecological areas,” Savitz said.
Speaking to reporters about the wilderness designation on Monday, outgoing White House adviser John Podesta said, “We hope that we can find cooperation so that that wilderness designation ultimately can go through in the Congress.”
A week after Obama went after congressional climate deniers in a speech before them, the environmental pushback was still palpable – especially from Republicans who have voted repeatedly to expand offshore oil drilling.
“Listening to Congress and opening parts of the Atlantic is a step in the right direction from an administration that has taken a thousand steps backwards,” said Republican senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. But he said limiting oil and gas exploration in Alaska would rebound on his home state, which supplies many of the oil workers to other parts of the US.
The leasing proposals were also bound to frustrate officials in Alaska – who have pushed for more drilling – as well as the oil industry. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican senator from Alaska, said she and others would fight to expand drilling.
“We will do everything we can to push back against an administration that has taken a look at Alaska and decided it’s a nice little snow globe up there and we are going to treat it that way. That is not how you treat a state,” she told a press conference on Monday.
Jewell acknowledged in the plan that officials had taken the views of governors and states into account when drawing up the plans, and indicated that was why Florida, Delaware and Maryland had been excluded from the potential leasing maps.
“This is a balanced approach,” Jewell said. She also said the administration was determined to protect sensitive areas off Alaska. “There are some areas that are too special to develop.”