Obama clears way for offshore drilling for oil and gas, including off Va. coast
By Juliet Eilperin and William Branigin
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; 12:00 PM
President Obama announced Wednesday that his administration will approve significant oil and gas exploration off America’s coasts, including a possible sale two years from now of leases off the Virginia shore.
The move ends a long-standing moratorium on oil and gas drilling along much of the East Coast, from Delaware to central Florida.
In a speech on energy security, Obama said he was steering a course between staunch opposition to any new offshore drilling and advocacy of opening all U.S. waters to energy exploration without restriction. He said the decision has been under consideration for more than a year.
“Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth and produce jobs and keep our businesses competitive, we’re going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy,” Obama said. “So today we’re announcing the expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration — but in ways that balance the need to harness domestic energy resources and the need to protect America’s natural resources.”
Obama made the remarks in an appearance with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at Joint Base Andrews Naval Air Facility Washington, formerly Andrews Air Force Base. He spoke against the backdrop of a new fighter jet and a light armored vehicle that the military has been testing to run on a mixture of biofuels.
The new strategy calls for oil and gas exploration in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, more than 125 miles from Florida’s coast, and in large areas in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in the Arctic Ocean, north of Alaska, after the government conducts detailed studies.
However, the administration will continue to bar exploration in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, which is home to critical wildlife habitat.
Obama pledged that new technologies would be employed to reduce the impact of oil exploration.
“We’ll protect areas vital to tourism, the environment and our national security,” he said. “And we’ll be guided not by political ideology, but by scientific evidence. That’s why my administration will consider potential new areas for development in the mid- and south-Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, while studying and protecting sensitive areas in the Arctic. That’s why we’ll continue to support development of leased areas off the North Slope of Alaska, while protecting Alaska’s Bristol Bay.”
He said his announcement “is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy.”
Obama called on the nation to “move beyond the tired debates between right and left, between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure-all and those who would claim it has no place.”
He lamented that “while our politics has remained entrenched along worn divides, the ground has shifted beneath our feet,” with other nations investing heavily in new ways of producing and saving energy.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military is acting to develop alternative fuel sources as a matter of national security, he said, pointing to an experimental F-18 Navy fighter jet and an armored vehicle behind him. He said the jet, called the Green Hornet, will be flown for the first time on Earth Day and could become the first plane to break the sound barrier “on a fuel mix that is half biomass.”
“Our military leaders recognize the security imperative of increasing the use of alternative fuels, decreasing energy use and reducing our reliance on imported oil,” Obama said. He noted that the Navy has set a goal of using 50 percent alternative fuel in all ships, planes and vehicles in the next 10 years.
Marilyn Heiman, the Pew Environment Group’s U.S. Arctic program director, lauded the administration’s decision to ban drilling in Bristol Bay. The bay is “the home of the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon run and the nursery for Bering Sea fisheries that provide 40 percent of our nation’s seafood,” she said. “With fish stocks declining around the globe, we cannot afford to put Bristol Bay’s vibrant fisheries at risk.”
Unlike some other environmentalists, Heiman praised the administration for “proceeding cautiously in the Arctic Ocean” by ordering additional studies before opening it up for exploration. “New leasing should not occur until improved oil spill response capacity is in place and we know better how to protect this sensitive region,” she said.
The administration’s decision to open up large swaths of the Outer Continental Shelf, even as it keeps some key preserves off-limits, is likely to anger environmentalists and several key lawmakers who had pressed Obama to keep the moratorium in place. But oil and gas companies are sure to welcome the proposal.
The drilling policy represents the White House’s latest attempt to straddle a middle ground on climate and energy policy, an effort that has already seen steps to boost domestic energy production and demands for stricter limits on greenhouse-gas emissions. This week the administration will finalize the nation’s first greenhouse-gas limits for emissions from cars and light trucks, regulations that will boost the fuel economy of the U.S. vehicle fleet over several years.
The strategy that Obama and Salazar announced will guide both the current 2007-2012 offshore oil and gas leasing program authored by George W. Bush‘s administration, as well as the new 2012-2017 program that will be crafted by the current administration.
If there is enough interest from industry and if the government determines that offshore drilling does not harm the environment or interfere with military activities, the Interior Department intends to hold a 2012 lease sale for exploration 50 miles off the coast of Virginia, as well as a similar one for Alaska’s Cook Inlet.
The Sierra Club’s executive director, Michael Brune, said last week that his group remained opposed to offshore oil drilling, even in the context of an overall climate bill that places a price on carbon.
“It is not a mechanism that actually fights climate change,” Brune said in an interview. “You don’t make the problem worse in order to solve it.”
The Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service estimates that the Gulf of Mexico contains 36 billion to 41.5 billion barrels of undiscovered, economically recoverable oil and 161 trillion to 207 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, economically recoverable natural gas resources.
Offshore oil drilling has been prohibited since the 1980s, both under congressional and presidential moratoriums. Bush lifted the presidential ban in 2008, and Congress declined to impose its ban yet again through the annual spending process.
Last week, 10 senators from coastal states — including Delaware, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island — wrote a letter to Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), saying that the latest push to drill offshore is “of great concern to us,” in part because the exploration and hazards associated with such activities could threaten their states’ fishery and tourism industries.
Dan Weiss, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress think tank, noted that a federal analysis last year suggested that converting unexplored areas on the Outer Continental Shelf to productive sites “will require considerable time, in addition to financial investment.”
The fact that the average field off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts is smaller than those in the Gulf of Mexico, the report added, suggests that some of the areas subject to drilling under Obama’s new policy “may not be as economically attractive as available resources in the Gulf.”