Environmentalists: White House didn’t go far enough to block drilling

Offshore drilling foes who were incensed when President Barack Obama said he would expand offshore drilling earlier this year are cheering the administration’s decision to reverse course today.

Margie Alt, the executive director of Environment America, said the decision is good news for “anyone who loves our beaches, who fishes in the ocean or who depends on a healthy coastal economy.” Alt said the offshore drilling retreat showed the administration was heeding lessons learned by the oil spill and “the outpouring of opposition to offshore drilling” it unleashed.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said the White House’s move puts the U.S. “on a prudent path.”

“Opening up wide swaths of our coasts to oil drilling before we put the proper regulatory measures in place would have been a mistake,” Markey said. “We can’t put thousands of miles of coastline at risk for another spill when the oil companies are still not prepared to respond, and all for oil that would make an economically insignificant impact a decade or more from now.”

And Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a longtime offshore drilling foe who led the successful push for a statutory ban on drilling near his state’s Gulf Coast until 2022, praised the White House for “listening to the people of Florida.”

“As I’ve said — and long before the BP spill — just one accident could ruin Florida’s tourism economy and our unique environment, not to mention the Everglades,” Nelson said, adding that nearby military training could also be put in jeopardy. But, Nelson noted that drilling in closer state waters is still left to lawmakers in Tallahassee (and other state capitals nationwide).

Andrew Sharpless, CEO of the environmental group Oceana, said the administration’s decision was “a very welcome return to common sense,” and said it was “terrific to see that our government has learned this basic lesson” that safety assurances from oil companies “are entirely unreliable.”

Still, some environmental advocates said the White House didn’t go far enough. For instance, Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the decision was the right thing to do but that the administration fell short by not blocking drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas near Alaska.

“Leaving the door open to exploratory drilling, and, potentially additional lease sales starting in 2012 in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas puts precious Arctic waters and habitat at risk,” Lehner said, noting that the Arctic is environmentally sensitive and there are fewer resources to deal with oil spills in the remote region.

“Until we know how to protect this region from the risk of a blow-out and how to clean up oil spills in Arctic waters, these areas, too, need to be off-limits to drilling,” he said.

Adam Kolton, a senior director for congressional and federal affairs at the National Wildlife Federation, also criticized the White House for leaving Arctic drilling on the table.

“Until oil companies prove they can contain and clean up an oil gusher in rough, remote Arctic waters, those areas should not be included in the administration’s next five-year plan and Shell should not be allowed to drill its planned exploratory wells there this summer,” Kolton said.

Read about the reaction from industry officials and offshore drilling advocates here.

You can also read highlights of the administration’s new offshore drilling plans here.