Obama administration makes u-turn on Atlantic drilling

The Obama administration reversed course on Tuesday on a proposal to open the southeastern Atlantic coast to drilling because of the oil price slump and strong opposition in coastal communities.

Besides market and environmental concerns, the U.S. Interior Department said it also based its decision on conflicts with competing commercial and military ocean uses.

The decision reverses a January 2015 proposal for new leases in the Atlantic as part of the department’s five-year plan to set new boundaries for oil development in federal waters through 2022.

“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.

“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.”

The proposal would have opened up drilling sites more than 50 miles off Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia to oil drilling by 2021.

Coastal communities in these states protested the administration’s plan, fearing the possibility of an oil spill like the BP Horizon accident in 2010 on the U.S. Gulf Coast, and its effects on tourism and their economies.

“With this decision coastal communities have won a ‘David vs. Goliath’ fight against the richest companies on the planet, and that is a cause for tremendous optimism for the well-being of future generations,” said Jacqueline Savitz, environmental group Oceana’s vice president for U.S. oceans.

Virginia officials had welcomed the plan to allow offshore drilling, saying it would bring economic benefits. On Tuesday, Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, said he was surprised that the Department of Defense had raised concerns about naval installations, one of which is off the state’s coast.

“The DOD has been relatively quiet during this public debate and has never shared their objections with me before,” he said.

On Monday, the American Petroleum Institute industry group said expanding offshore drilling would improve everything from infrastructure to education.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, stuck, off limits to future generations as it waits for forward-looking energy policy,” said Erik Milito, API’s director of upstream and industry operations.

The Interior Department also announced Tuesday that it would evaluate 13 other potential lease sales in other areas of the country – 10 in the Gulf of Mexico and three off the coast of Alaska.

“The proposal focuses potential lease sales in areas with the highest resource potential, greatest industry interest, and established infrastructure,” Jewell said.

The Interior Department said that in the Gulf, resource potential and industry interest are high and infrastructure already exists.

It proposes two annual lease sales that include the Western, Central, and part of the eastern Gulf of Mexico not subject to the current congressional moratorium.

It also includes a potential sale each in the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea, and Cook Inlet planning areas in Alaska. The department would take comments on other options, including an alternative that includes no new leasing.

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