|NY Times March 30, 2010
Obama to Open Offshore Areas to Oil Drilling for First Time
By JOHN M. BRODER
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is proposing to open vast
expanses of water along the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf
of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska to oil and natural gas
drilling, much of it for the first time, officials said Tuesday.
The proposal — a compromise that will please oil companies and
domestic drilling advocates but anger some residents of affected
states and many environmental organizations — would end a
longstanding moratorium on oil exploration along the East Coast
from the northern tip of Delaware to the central coast of Florida,
covering 167 million acres of ocean.
Under the plan, the coastline from New Jersey northward would
remain closed to all oil and gas activity. So would the Pacific
Coast, from Mexico to the Canadian border.
The environmentally sensitive Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska
would be protected and no drilling would be allowed under the
plan, officials said. But large tracts in the Chukchi Sea and
Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska — nearly 130
million acres — would be eligible for exploration and drilling
after extensive studies.
The proposal is to be announced by President Obama and Interior
Secretary Ken Salazar at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on
Wednesday, but administration officials agreed to preview the
details on the condition that they not be identified.
The proposal is intended to reduce dependence on oil imports,
generate revenue from the sale of offshore leases and help win
political support for comprehensive energy and climate legislation.
But while Mr. Obama has staked out middle ground on other
environmental matters — supporting nuclear power, for example —
the sheer breadth of the offshore drilling decision will take some
of his supporters aback. And it is no sure thing that it will win
support for a climate bill from undecided senators close to the
oil industry, like Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, or Mary
L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana.
The Senate is expected to take up a climate bill in the next few
weeks — the last chance to enact such legislation before midterm
election concerns take over. Mr. 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.
But even as Mr. Obama curries favors 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
The Obama administration’s plan adopts some drilling proposals
floated by President George W. Bush near the end of his tenure,
including opening much of the Atlantic and Arctic Coasts. Those
proposals were challenged in court on environmental grounds and
set aside by President Obama shortly after he took office.
Unlike the Bush plan, however, Mr. Obama’s proposal would put
Bristol Bay, home to major Alaskan commercial fisheries and
populations of endangered whales, off limits to oil rigs.
Actual drilling in much of the newly opened areas, if it takes
place, would not begin for years.
Mr. Obama said several times during his presidential campaign that
he supported expanded offshore drilling. He noted in his State of
the Union address in January that weaning the country from
imported oil would require “tough decisions about opening new
offshore areas for oil and gas development.”
Perhaps in anticipation of controversy, the new policy has been
closely held within the administration. White House and Interior
Department officials began briefing members of Congress and local
officials in affected states late Tuesday.
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.
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,
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.
The eastern Gulf of Mexico tract that would be offered for lease
is adjacent to an area that already contains thousands of wells
and hundreds of drilling platforms. The eastern Gulf area is
believed to contain as much as 3.5 billion barrels of oil and 17
trillion cubic feet of gas, the richest single tract that would be
open to drilling under the Obama plan.
Drilling there has been strongly opposed by officials from both
political parties in Alabama and Florida who fear damage to
coastlines, fisheries, popular beaches and wildlife. Interior
Department officials said no wells would be allowed within 125
miles of the Florida and Alabama coasts, making them invisible
The Interior Department and the Pentagon are discussing possible
restrictions on oil and gas operations in some areas off Virginia
and Florida, home to some of the nation’s biggest Navy and Air
Force facilities. States are also likely to claim rights to the
revenues from oil and gas deposits within 3 to 12 miles of shore
and to some portion of lease proceeds, officials said.
Mr. Salazar developed the offshore drilling plan after conducting
four public meetings over the past year in Alaska, California,
Louisiana and New Jersey. The Interior Department received more
than 500,000 public comments on the issue.
Mr. Salazar has said that he hoped to rebalance the nation’s oil
and gas policy to find a middle ground between the “drill here
drill now” advocacy of many oil industry advocates and the
preservationist impulse to block oil exploration beneath virtually
all public lands and waters.
He has called the offshore drilling plan a new chapter in the
nation’s search for a comprehensive energy policy that can open
new areas to oil and gas development “in the right way and in the
right places,” according to an aide.
In many of the newly opened areas, drilling would begin only after
the completion of geologic studies, environmental impact
statements, court challenges and public lease sales. Much of the
oil and gas may not be recoverable at current prices and may be
prohibitively expensive even if oil prices spike as they did in
the summer of 2008.
At the Wednesday event, Mr. 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.