U.S. Rejects East Coast Oil Drilling

The Obama administration is backing away from plans to expand oil and gas development off U.S. shores, putting waters off the Atlantic seaboard and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico off-limits for at least another seven years.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that after the BP oil spill in April, the administration is proceeding with caution and more stringent rules for offshore oil and gas drilling.

"In light of the Deepwater Horizon spill and the need to focus on our resources in areas with existing leases, I have decided we will not be considering for potential development the area of the eastern Gulf of Mexico that remains under congressional moratorium," Salazar said.

In tourism-dependent Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist called the continued ban "wonderful news." But the decision was criticized by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell as "irresponsible and shortsighted."

The administration had backed a major expansion of offshore drilling earlier this year, in part to gain support for comprehensive climate legislation in Congress, one of President Obama's top legislative goals. With that bill now off the table, the president stands to gain politically by saying no to powerful oil interests, particularly in Florida, which is expected to be a crucial swing state in the 2012 presidential election campaign.

Salazar denied politics played any role, saying the BP spill taught officials a number of lessons, "most importantly that we need to proceed with caution and focus on creating a more stringent regulatory regime."

The new drilling focus would be on areas with leases that are currently active in the central and western Gulf of Mexico.

Under the revised plan, the Interior Department will not propose any new oil drilling in waters in the Atlantic Ocean and eastern Gulf for at least the next seven years. Already-planned lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico, expected in March and August, will be delayed until late 2011 or early 2012, Salazar said.

The administration's previous plan, announced in March, three weeks before the BP spill, would have authorized officials to explore the potential for drilling from Delaware to central Florida, plus the northern waters of Alaska. The new plan allows potential drilling in Alaska, but officials said they will move cautiously before approving any leases.

The eastern Gulf, an area stretching from 125 to 300 miles off Florida's coast, was singled out for protection by Congress in 2006 as part of a deal with Florida lawmakers that made available 8.3 million acres to oil and gas development in the east-central Gulf.

Under that agreement, the protected region is to remain off limits to energy development until 2022.

But the administration had entertained the idea of expanded drilling until the BP spill that spewed an estimated 172 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. In order to open more of the eastern Gulf to drilling, the administration would have to ask Congress to lift the drilling moratorium.

The new plan does not affect the Pacific seaboard, which will remain off-limits to drilling in federal waters.

The head of a prominent industry group said the Obama administration was cramping domestic oil production and contradicting the will of recession-weary voters.

In last month's elections, "the voters said loud and clear we want economic recovery and good American jobs. The decision today shuts the door on new development off our nation's coast and effectively makes sure those jobs will not be realized," said Jack Gerard, president and chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also criticized the decision, which she said comes on top of a "de facto moratorium" the administration has imposed on oil production in both deep and shallow waters in the Gulf and Alaska.

But some Democratic lawmakers praised the move.

"Drilling off the Virginia coast would have brought with it tremendous risks for our coastal economy and the future of the Chesapeake Bay, a national environmental treasure," said Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "I urge President Obama to make permanent today's announcement."

NPR's Debbie Elliott contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press

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