Obama Opens Up East Coast For Offshore Drilling

President Obama announced Wednesday a plan 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. The move reverses a ban on drilling off most U.S. shores.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

Today, President Obama announced plans to roll back a moratorium on oil exploration off the East Coast. He opened the door to more offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska. The proposal represents an olive branch to Republicans. During the 2008 presidential race, drill, baby, drill was a GOP campaign slogan. For Mr. Obama, it's a stepping stone to what he hopes will be a more comprehensive energy policy. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Green energy has been the mantra of the Obama administration. The president champions solar power, wind energy and efficiency at every turn. But windmills and solar panels by themselves are not enough, the president says. So in a decision sure to turn some green energy advocates red, he's opening the door to expanded oil and gas drilling offshore.

President BARACK OBAMA: Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth and produce jobs and keep our businesses competitive, we are going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel, even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says he didn't make this decision lightly. And it's still not open season for oil companies. Most of the West Coast will still be off-limits, along with sensitive parts of the Alaskan coast, like Bristol Bay, a major fishery and tourist destination.

Pres. OBAMA: The answer is not drilling everywhere all the time, but the answer is not also for us to ignore the fact that we are going to need vital energy sources to maintain our economic growth and our security.

HORSLEY: Oil producers cheered the president's move. Energy analyst Phil Flynn of PFGBEST Research in Chicago says it's a big step for energy security, especially coming from Mr. Obama, who downplayed the potential of offshore drilling on the campaign trail.

Mr. PHIL FLYNN (Energy Analyst, PFGBEST Research): We've come a long way from the days when President Obama was talking about filling our tires with air, you know, could produce more energy savings than drilling in the ocean. I, for one, think it's a courageous move by the Obama administration, because we know many of the supporters are vehemently against this.

HORSLEY: Indeed, some environmental groups were quick to blast the expanded drilling. The League of Conservation Voters called it more of the failed policies of the past. Frances Beinecke, who heads the National Resources Defense Council, says it's a mistake to fall back on fossil fuels that generate greenhouse gases and to look for those fuels in sensitive natural habitats.

Mr. FRANCES BEINECKE (Head, National Resources Defense Council): This announcement today causes concern about what we consider to be some of the most fragile marine environments in the country.

HORSLEY: For President Obama, expanded offshore drilling is just one piece of a broader energy strategy. By embracing offshore drilling and nuclear power, he's hoping to win at least some Republican support for a comprehensive energy bill that would also curb greenhouse gases.

Pres. OBAMA: And what I hope is the policies that we've laid out - from hybrid fleets to offshore drilling, from nuclear energy to wind energy - underscores the seriousness with which my administration takes this challenge.

HORSLEY: Top Republicans grudgingly applauded the president's move. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called it a step in the right direction, but a small step. McConnell also questioned whether the administration would really follow through and issue the permits for offshore drilling. But Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who met with the president earlier this month, says he came away impressed by Mr. Obama's openness to traditionally Republican thinking.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): If you're Republican and you believe we should drill, baby, drill, now's your chance. If you're a Republican, independent or Democrat who believes in nuclear power, the store is open. Now is your chance.

HORSLEY: Graham has been working with Democratic Senator John Kerry and independent Senator Joe Lieberman on a wide-ranging bill to address climate change and promote domestic energy sources. They hope to unveil their plan in abut three weeks.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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Obama Ends Ban On East Coast Offshore Drilling

The Discoverer Deep Seas drill ship sits off Louisiana's coast in the Gulf of Mexico in 2006. i i

hide captionThe Discoverer Deep Seas drill ship sits off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico in this 2006 photo. President Obama's plan expands eastward the area of the Gulf where drilling is already permitted.

Alex Brandon/AP
The Discoverer Deep Seas drill ship sits off Louisiana's coast in the Gulf of Mexico in 2006.

The Discoverer Deep Seas drill ship sits off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico in this 2006 photo. President Obama's plan expands eastward the area of the Gulf where drilling is already permitted.

Alex Brandon/AP

President Obama announced the end of a decades-old ban on oil and gas drilling along much of the U.S. Atlantic coast and northern Alaska on Wednesday, as part of an effort to reduce foreign imports and win support for an energy and climate bill.

The changes in policy would allow drilling on tracts as close as 50 miles to the Virginia shore, and end a longstanding moratorium on drilling from Delaware to central Florida. Exploration in the Gulf of Mexico would be expanded eastward, and swaths north of Alaska would be opened up.

"For decades we've talked about how our dependence on foreign oil threatens our economy — yet our will to act rises and falls with the price of a barrel of oil," Obama said during a speech at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. He also praised the military's efforts to operate ships, tanks and planes on alternative fuels.

Heard On 'All Things Considered'

"There will be those who strongly disagree with this decision," said Obama, who was accompanied by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. "But what I want to emphasize is that this announcement is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy."

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the U.S. Atlantic coast could hold as much as 37 trillion cubic feet of gas and 4 billion barrels of oil.

The administration has reportedly rejected proposed leases in Alaska's environmentally sensitive Bristol Bay, and a moratorium on drilling off the West Coast would be left in place.

The new policy reverses decades of precedent and is sure to anger environmentalists who have long opposed such a move. Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), who regularly takes a pro-environmental line, urged oil companies to drill in areas they've already leased before moving on to new coastal areas.

Key Provisions

Allows oil and gas drilling along the Atlantic Coast from Delaware to central Florida.

Opens up Alaska's northern Arctic coast along the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea to exploration. Drilling would be allowed if scientists conclude the areas are suitable for offshore extraction.

Expands drilling in the Gulf of Mexico eastward, closer to Florida's Gulf Coast, by 2022 if Congress allows a moratorium currently in place there to expire.

Safeguards Alaska's environmentally sensitive Bristol Bay, which had reportedly been under consideration for drilling.

Keeps in place a ban on drilling off the U.S. West coast.

The conservation group Oceana labeled the president's move to lift the offshore drilling ban a "wholesale assault" on the oceans.

"Expanding offshore drilling is the wrong move if the Obama administration is serious about improving energy security, creating jobs and averting climate change," said Oceana senior campaign director Jacqueline Savitz. She added that the U.S. should instead focus on expanding wind and other renewable forms of energy.

Political observers say the changes to oil and gas drilling policy are likely aimed at swaying some members of Congress to support a comprehensive energy and climate bill — one that would encourage alternatives to fossil fuels — that is the next major piece of legislation on the administration's agenda.

White House officials hope Wednesday's announcement will attract support from Republicans. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) adopted the slogan "Drill, baby, drill" in reference to the perceived need for more domestic exploration to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Obama hinted at the about-face in policy during his State of the Union speech in January, in which he said he was open to the idea.

Oil companies have been waiting for years for the green light to expand drilling outside the Gulf of Mexico. Aside from safeguarding Bristol Bay — effectively designating it a protected zone — Obama's plan offers few other concessions to environmentalists.

But actual drilling is likely years away, as individual state legislatures and governors would still need to approve exploration and drilling off their coasts and determine how near to shore they would allow it. Those states that permit drilling could get a chunk of the revenue, if Congress approves.

In Alaska's northern Chukchi and Beaufort seas, scientists would first study the area to determine whether it is suitable for drilling before new leases would be issued. An expansion of drilling in Cook Inlet to the south would also be allowed to go forward. The changes would be administered by the Interior Department.

The proposed expanded area in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, however, will effectively be on hold for years, as the moratorium on drilling there doesn't expire until 2022.

Congress had prohibited drilling off most of the U.S. coastline for decades, but that ban expired two years ago, clearing the way for the changes.

The first ban on drilling — for much of California's coast — was put in place by Congress in the early 1980s. Over the next decade, lawmakers expanded the ban to the rest of the Pacific coast and much of the Atlantic seaboard. Executive orders issued by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton strengthened the prohibitions. But President George W. Bush lifted the presidential directive on the ban in 2008, and months later, Congress allowed it to expire.

Obama's speech included some provisions meant to placate environmental groups. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department is finalizing increased fuel efficiency standards on new cars, and the president announced that more hybrid vehicles will be added for service in the government fleet.

"Already, we've made the largest investment in clean energy in our nation's history," Obama said. "It's an investment that's expected to create or save more than 700,000 jobs across America: jobs manufacturing advanced batteries for more efficient vehicles, upgrading the power grid so that it's smarter and stronger, and doubling our nation's capacity to generate renewable electricity from sources like the wind and the sun."

NPR's Scott Horsley and Christopher Joyce contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press.

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