Obama offshore oil drilling plans brings critics from environmentalists as well as industry proponents

Publish date: March 31, 2010

NEW YORK – In announcing his proposal Wednesday to open vast expanses of American coastlines to oil and natural gas drilling toward a balanced plan that would attract bipartisan support for climate and energy legislation while increasing production of domestic oil, it is unclear whether US President Barack Obama’s plan will do either.

Obama’s announcement yesterday, along with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, that the US would allow drilling along the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico drew fire from both sides of the drilling debate.

Even Obama sounded somewhat torn in announcing the plan yesterday at Joint Base Andrews Naval Air Facility in Maryland in the remarks that were carried by US television outlets.

“This is not a decision I’ve made lightly,” Obama said. “There will be those who strongly disagree with this decision, including those who say we should not open any new areas to drilling,” he continued.

“But what I want to emphasize is that this 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 home grown fuels and clean energy.”

The Obama plan also spelled out areas where drilling would not be allowed, like the coast of New Jersey and the Pacific Coast, from Mexico to the Canadian border. He also said environmentally sensitive Bristol Bay in south western Alaska would be protected and no drilling would be allowed under the plan, officials told US media.

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.

In all Obama’s proposal would open some 675,825 square kilometres of ocean that have been closed to drilling for 20 years. Obama also pledged to improve the fuel efficiency of US government vehicles.

But critics rained on the announcement almost as soon as it was made.

“Drilling our coasts will doing nothing to lower gas prices or create energy independence,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “It will only jeopardize beaches, marine life, and coastal tourist economies, all so the oil industry can make a short-term profit.”

Bellona USA Director Jonathan Temple focussed on Obama’s careful approach to dealing with Arctic drilling off the northern coast of Alaska saying, ““Bellona praises the Obama administration for proceeding cautiously in the Arctic Ocean by ordering more scientific analysis before opening it up for exploration. It’s critically important that this environmentally sensitive region is protected,” he said.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement issued to Bellona Web called Obama’s proposal “a step in the right direction, but a small one that leaves enormous amounts of American energy off limits.”

McConnell also sought proof that the drilling would ultimately be permitted. “Will the administration actually take concrete steps to finish the studies, approve the necessary permits, and open these areas for production?” he said in a statement. “Will they stand by as their allies act to delay the implementation in the courts?”

House Republican Leader John Boehner also criticized the plan for keeping the vast majority of America’s offshore energy resources off limits at a time when, the Ohio representative said, Americans want an “all of the above” strategy for promoting American energy production and creating American jobs, the New York Times reported.

“We’re appalled that the president is unleashing a wholesale assault on the oceans,” Jacqueline Savitz of the environmental group Oceana said on Wednesday. “Expanding offshore drilling is the wrong move if the Obama administration is serious about improving energy security, creating lasting jobs and averting climate change.”

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

An Obama divided

Obama was clearly at pains to dampen criticism from both sides.

“Ultimately, we need to move beyond the tired debates of the left and the right, 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 said. “Because this issue is just too important to allow our progress to languish while we fight the same old battles over and over again.”

But Obama also tried to answer oil industry officials and Republicans in Congress who would claim that the president did not go far enough.

“They’d deny the fact that with less than 2 percent of oil reserves, but more than 20 percent of world consumption, drilling alone cannot come close to meeting our long-term energy needs,” he said, “and that for the sake of the planet and our energy independence, we need to begin the transition to cleaner fuels now.”

Last chance to get climate and energy bill passed

The announcement comes as a last chance to take up the languishing climate bill before concerns of mid-term congressional elections take over.

The proposal is also intended to generate revenue from the sale of offshore leases and help win political support for comprehensive energy and climate legislation. Obama and his allies in the Senate have already made significant 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.

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.

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.

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