Pointing to the BP oil spill and risks of a new environmental disaster, the Obama administration has promised not to pursue offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico or anywhere else along the US east coast.
The decision was generally hailed in Florida, which depends on tourists drawn by the state’s white beaches, but criticised by the oil industry, which said the administration was stifling crucial US energy production and costing recession-battered jobseekers opportunities for new work.
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 Barack Obama’s top legislative goals. With that Bill now off the table, the president stands much 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 election campaign.
Interior Secretary Ken 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.
“In the Gulf and the Atlantic we are adjusting our strategy,” Mr Salazar said. “We believe the most appropriate course of action is to focus development on areas with existing leases and not expand to new areas at this time.”
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, Mr Salazar added.
The administration’s previous plan – announced last March, three weeks before the April BP spill – would have authorised 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 Obama 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.