White House: No Drilling In East Coast Waters

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The Obama administration reversed course Wednesday on a sensitive environmental and economic issue — offshore drilling. The Interior Department says that for at least the next seven years, it will not allow any offshore oil and gas drilling off the East Coast in the Atlantic, or in the Gulf of Mexico near Florida. And it will proceed cautiously in granting any new offshore leases in Alaska.

GUY RAZ, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today the federal government reversed course on a sensitive environmental and economic issue: offshore drilling. The Interior Department says for at least the next seven years, it will not allow any offshore oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic off the East Coast or in the Gulf of Mexico near Florida. And it will proceed cautiously in granting any new offshore leases in Alaska.

As NPR's Greg Allen reports, earlier this year, President Obama said that he was opening those areas to offshore drilling.

GREG ALLEN: What a difference nine months and the largest oil spill in U.S. history makes. In March, President Obama angered environmental groups and some coastal communities by agreeing to open new areas in the Gulf and the Atlantic to offshore drilling.

It was widely seen as an overture to Republicans, part of his efforts to encourage passage of a climate bill. Those efforts went nowhere. And a few weeks later, the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, causing an estimated $40 billion of damage to the Gulf Coast.

As Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said today, the administration is still trying to come to grips with that environmental and economic disaster.

Secretary KEN SALAZAR (Department of the Interior): We are in the process of putting into place the most stringent safety and environmental standards in the world.

ALLEN: Conducting the research and study to develop those standards takes time, Salazar said. That's why he said the administration is changing its earlier course and is now placing the Atlantic and new areas in the Gulf of Mexico off limits to oil and gas drilling.

Sec. SALAZAR: We believe that the most appropriate course of action is to focus development on areas with existing leases and not expand to new areas at this time.

ALLEN: The move didn't come entirely as a surprise. Since the BP spill, the oil and gas industry has been waiting for the other shoe to drop, knowing that a change in the administration's policy on offshore drilling was likely. David Mica, head of the Florida Petroleum Council said, still, it's ill-advised and potentially very damaging to the U.S. economy.

Mr. DAVID MICA (Executive Director, Florida Petroleum Council): It could cost us tens of thousands of jobs in the industry, make us more dependent on foreign sources of oil and gas and cost the federal government billions of dollars in revenues from royalties and taxes on an American product, as opposed to importing foreign products.

ALLEN: Mica and others in the industry worry that the continued ban in the Atlantic and Gulf may hurt oil and gas production, to which Interior Secretary Salazar had a ready answer.

Sec. SALAZAR: We have approximately 29 million acres that are already under lease in the Gulf of Mexico that have not yet been developed. So there's plenty of opportunity for oil and gas companies to go out and develop these additional resources.

ALLEN: In Florida, the issue of whether to expand offshore drilling is more than an academic discussion. Only a small portion of beaches on the western tip, the Florida panhandle, saw any oil from the BP spill. Nonetheless, the spill had a big impact on the state's tourism and recreational fishing industries.

Mr. D.T. MINICH (Director, St. Petersburg Convention and Visitors Bureau): It illustrated how an oil spill can affect tourism without even washing ashore.

ALLEN: D.T. Minich is head of the Convention and Visitors Bureau in the St. Petersburg area. In Pinellas County, where there never was any oil, he says the tourism industry took a $5 million hit.

Mr. MINICH: We can't afford to play Russian roulette with the largest industry in the state here.

ALLEN: Nine months ago, before the BP spill, like President Obama, many in Florida, even some in tourism, had been reassured by oil industry claims that offshore drilling was safe and were willing to consider it. No longer, Minich says. For him and many others in Florida and across the nation, the last several months have been, as he puts it, an eye-opening experience.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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