Obama will not expand offshore drilling into Atlantic

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez stands behind a Protect Our Coast sign, as he addresses a large rally opposing federal plans that would allow oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016, in Asbury Park, N.J. U.S. Sens. Menendez and Cory Booker and Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., were among those who cited the potential for "catastrophic" oil spills that could cause economic and environmental harm at the Jersey shore. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez stands behind a Protect Our Coast sign, as he addresses a large rally opposing federal plans that would allow oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration has decided not to open up offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, dealing a blow to an industry campaign to develop oil and gas deposits there.

The prospect of bringing drilling rigs back into waters that had not been tapped in decades pitted the prospect of an economic boom for southern coastal states against a host of environmental concerns.

After a more than year-long review process, the combination of objections from coastal communities, market conditions and potential conflicts with existing commercial and military activities cemented the decision, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Tuesday.

“We heard from many corners that now is not the time to offer oil and gas leasing off the Atlantic coast,” she said in a press conference. “This is a balanced proposal that protects sensitive resources and supports safe and responsible development of the nation’s domestic energy resources.”

Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management had been considering leasing more than 100 million acres off the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, as part of its pending five year drilling plan for federal waters.

Controversy also arose around plans to continue leasing in the Arctic Ocean, off Alaska’s remote northern coast line. Environmentalists argue drilling there poses too great a risk to marine wildlife.

For now, Interior plans to go ahead with three Arctic leases in the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea, and Cook Inlet. But Jewell warned projects there would face tough environmental standards.

“We know the Arctic is a unique place of critical importance to many – including Alaska Natives who rely on the ocean for subsistence,” she said.

News that the Atlantic would not be included in the government’s offshore plan was first reported by The New York Times.

The decision had been a topic of speculation for weeks, as the oil industry, partnering with a coalition of southern governors, lobbied heavily to keep the Atlantic proposal in the offshore plan.

Take a look at on-shore Alaskan drilling in the gallery below. 

Interior estimated waters off the mid and south Atlantic coasts contained some 3 billion barrels of oil and more than 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The waters had not been drilled since the 1980s, and many within the industry believe improved technology could yield even larger discoveries as seen off the coasts of Brazil and Nigeria.

“It’s a once in a generation opportunity,” Erik Milito, upstream director at the American Petroleum Institute, told reporters Monday.

But since the ocean energy bureau released its draft drilling plan last year, many coastal residents had risen up in protest. Concerns over spills and the industrialization of tourist areas spread quickly.

The Department of Defense raised concern with the ocean energy bureau that drilling rigs and ship traffic might interfere with Naval exercises off the East Coast.

The White House has also made climate change a priority over the past three years, seeking to expand the use of renewable sources like wind and solar while shifting the country away from coal and oil.

In December President Obama joined close to 200 other world leaders in Paris and pledged to cut carbon emissions to try and slow global warming.

Expanding into a new frontier of oil and gas deposits seemed to run counter to that agreement, environmental groups argued.

“President Obama has taken a giant step for our oceans, for coastal economies and for mitigating climate change,” Jacqueline Savitz, U.S. vice president with the environmental group Oceana, said in a statement Tuesday. “This is a courageous decision that begins the shift to a new energy paradigm, where clean energy replaces fossil fuels, and where we can avoid the worst impacts of decades of our carbon dioxide emissions.”

The decision Tuesday likely takes oil drilling in the Atlantic off the table until 2023, when the next five-year plan goes into effect.

Right now low oil prices make any large offshore projects difficult to justify. But that situation could change, drawing increased interest in the Atlantic, said Independent Petroleum Association of America President Barry Russell.

“Even if the offshore industry were able to explore along the East Coast, it would be a multi-year process,”  he said in a statement. “This [decision] further deters investment and removes the flexibility that America needs, should the international situation change a few short years from now.”