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Obama Administration Reverses Course, Will Not Allow Oil & Gas Drilling Off the Atlantic Coast

The administration proposed in early 2015 oil and gas exploration off the costs of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia — but, citing widespread opposition, the Interior Department has decided not to allow drilling.
Royal Dutch Shell drills for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, April 2010. (Photo by Mike Duhon/Royal Dutch Shell/EPA)

Bowing to widespread opposition from coastal towns, the Obama administration announced Tuesday that it won't open the US Atlantic seaboard to offshore oil exploration, but will still allow some leases off Alaska.

The Department of the Interior concluded Tuesday that drilling off the East Coast was not only unpopular, but would have "significant potential conflicts" with other interests, such as commercial shipping and the military.

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"We heard from many corners that now is not the time to offer oil and gas leasing off the Atlantic coast," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement announcing the decision. "When you factor in conflicts with national defense, economic activities such as fishing and tourism, and opposition from many local communities, it simply doesn't make sense to move forward with any lease sales in the coming five years."

BREAKING ? Next 5-year offshore proposed plan protects the Atlantic for future generations.SJ

— Sally Jewell (@SecretaryJewell)March 15, 2016

The news drew quick cheers from environmentalists, who had rallied against the possibility of oil exploration off Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia since it was first proposed in early 2015. But those cheers were tempered by the inclusion of new tracts in the already heavily developed Gulf of Mexico and in the Arctic, where Royal Dutch Shell gave up on a costly and hard-fought venture last summer.

"It's an incredible day for the Southeast," said Sierra Weaver, head of the Coast and Wetlands Program at the Southern Environmental Law Center. "It's incredible for our air, for our water, and for all of these coastal communities who have stood up to oppose this proposal."

The federal government estimates as much as 90 billion barrels of oil and more than 400 trillion cubic feet of natural gas might lie beneath the Atlantic coast. Supporters had argued that drilling could provide about 280,000 jobs and inject nearly $200 billion into the economies of the four states, whose governors had all endorsed new oil exploration.

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Tuesday's announcement drew a swift and scathing response from the American Petroleum Institute, the leading oil industry trade association.

"The decision appeases extremists who seek to stop oil and natural gas production which would increase the cost of energy for American consumers and close the door for years to creating new jobs, new investments, and boosting energy security," API President Jack Gerard said in a written statement. "This is not how you harness America's economic and diplomatic potential."

The decision flies in the face of support from state leaders and much of the public "and has left the future of American energy and national security vulnerable for the geopolitical challenges that lie ahead," Gerard said.

But more than 100 local governments along the coast had passed resolutions opposing drilling off their shores, fearing a blowout like BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster off Louisiana could wreck their existing tourism and fishing industries. Hamilton Davis, the energy program director for the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, said opponents were "ecstatic" as the word spread around Charleston on Tuesday morning.

"We think it's the right decision, and it's a testament to the grassroots, local opposition actually being able to influence these national decisions," Davis said. "I think a lot of people have lost faith in the system as it exists, but at least in this instance, it proved to be effective."

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Dan Lashof, the chief operating officer of renewable-energy advocate NextGen Climate America, said the administration "stood up for a brighter, stronger future powered by clean energy — not dangerous oil rigs off our nation's precious coasts." And Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, praised the administration for "standing up to Big Oil and protecting our coastal communities that rightly fear a BP-style disaster."

But Suh added that President Barack Obama "should finish the job, honor his historic climate agenda, and protect future generations by using his authority to permanently end the threat of drilling in the Atlantic and the Arctic."

Related: Environmental Activism in the US Is Popping Up in a Surprising Place

While the department's revised plan for offshore oil and gas leasing from 2017-2022 eliminates the Atlantic, it opens up 10 new lease areas in the heavily developed Gulf of Mexico and three off Alaska. The prospect of another lease sale in the Arctic dismayed environmental organizations like Greenpeace, which campaigned heavily against Shell's unsuccessful 2012 and 2015 attempts to drill in the Chukchi Sea—and had expressed hope that last week's joint US-Canada announcement on reducing methane emissions and protecting the Arctic would effectively close off the region.

"This decision doesn't balance conservation and energy, it fuels climate chaos," Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard said in a written statement. "President Obama must place the whole Arctic off limits. This program isn't yet final. The president must use the time he has to take all new offshore drilling out of circulation."

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The White House said last week that any new commercial ventures in the Arctic would have to meet "the highest safety and environmental standards," and Jewell told reporters Thursday that agreements on climate change and preserving the Arctic would be factored into any decision. While Tuesday's announcement includes potential lease sales in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the far north and Cook Inlet, near Anchorage, the Interior Department said an alternative proposal with no new leases is also up for discussion.

"We know the Arctic is a unique place of critical importance to many – including Alaska Natives who rely on the ocean for subsistence," Jewell said. "As we put together the final proposal, we want to hear from the public to help determine whether these areas are appropriate for future leasing and how we can protect environmental, cultural and subsistence resources."

But Erik Milito, API's head of upstream and industry operations, said drillers already have proven they can work safely in the harsh Arctic environment.

"At least 35 wells have already been drilled in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas with no significant impact on marine life in the region," Milito said. "Failure to develop these resources would put America's global energy leadership at risk at a time when Russia and other Arctic nations are forging ahead."

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl