Obama Halts Atlantic Drilling, but Keeps Arctic and Gulf Open for Business

New rules backtrack on previous plan to drill offshore, but environmental groups wanted a similar retreat in the Arctic and Gulf of Mexico.

Offshore drilling, like in the north Atlantic, has been called off for the U.S. Atlantic coast
Atlantic coastal communities voiced strong opposition to seeing offshore platforms like this one in the north Atlantic. Credit: Getty Images

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The Obama administration declared Atlantic waters off limits for oil and gas leasing for the next five years, the Department of Interior announced on Tuesday.

The decision is a reversal of a prior draft that would have opened up wide swaths of the southeast Atlantic to drilling, which was strongly opposed by hundreds of coastal communities as well as environmental groups. While opponents praised that part of the department’s update of its oil and gas leasing program, the proposal also kept open the possibility of drilling in Arctic waters off Alaska and allowed continued leasing in the Gulf of Mexico.

“This is a balanced proposal that protects sensitive resources and supports safe and responsible development of the nation’s domestic energy resources to create jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement.  

The prior draft outlined a plan to lease in the waters off Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. The Interior Department said it received more than one million comments, most in opposition.

The Interior Department's proposal for offshore drilling

“We heard from many corners that now is not the time to offer oil and gas leasing off the Atlantic coast,” Jewell said.

Those opposed included the Pentagon, which said drilling could interfere with military maneuvers and missile tests the Navy relies on to protect the East Coast, according to the Washington Post.  

“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,” Jewell said.

The Arctic, however, was not similarly closed for business. The current proposal sustains plans for one lease each in the Chukchi Sea, and Beaufort Sea in Arctic waters north of Alaska as well as the Cook Inlet off southern Alaska. The program would also include lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico not subject to a current Congressional moratorium. 

Environmentalists denounced the administration’s decision to keep Arctic and Gulf of Mexico drilling on the table.

“Any new offshore drilling will be a stain on President Obama’s climate legacy,” May Boeve, executive director of the climate activist group 350.org said in a statement. “If the President is going to meet the targets he agreed to at the climate talks in Paris, he needs to keep fossil fuels in the ground or in this case, under the sea. We can’t afford any more oil spilling into the oceans and carbon pouring into the atmosphere.”

Added Elijah Zarlin, climate campaign director for the advocacy organization CREDO Action: “President Obama has spared the people of the Atlantic coast from another oil catastrophe, but in allowing new drilling in the Gulf and Arctic, he’s keeping all of us on course for climate catastrophe. Any new offshore drilling is incompatible with a stable future and it is incompatible with the commitments that President Obama has made.”

Proposed Arctic leases could still be shelved before the proposed final program is released, which is expected by the end of the year. Atlantic leases, however, cannot be added back in.

“The list could narrow further, or it could stay the same as it is now, but it cannot grow,” Jewell said.

A new administration could, however, open new areas to leasing by initiating a new five-year program. Congress could also force lease sales, Jewell said.

Halting leases in the Atlantic was a popular move among environmental activists.

“President Obama has taken a giant step for our oceans, for coastal economies and for mitigating climate change,” said Jacqueline Savitz, a vice president for the non-profit Oceana. “This is a courageous decision that begins the shift to a new energy paradigm, where clean energy replaces fossil fuels, and where we can avoid the worst impacts of decades of our carbon dioxide emissions.”

The decision was seen as a victory for coastal towns and cities in the southeast, which came out in strong opposition to Atlantic drilling.

“Atlantic coast communities spoke up loudly and clearly against drilling and spilling, and today the president is standing with them,” said Margie Alt, executive director of Environment America.

Oil and gas and offshore energy industry groups derided Tuesday’s announcement.

“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,” Jack Gerard, president and chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement.

“The Administration clearly places politics ahead of sound science and wise energy policy,” Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, said in a statement. “These kinds of decisions forfeit tremendous future economic benefits and risk our nation’s recently earned status as the global energy leader.”

The Interior Department estimated in 2014 that 4.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 37.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lie below the Atlantic’s outer continental shelf. The decision to pull Atlantic leases came despite the governors of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia expressing support for offshore drilling as a source of jobs and revenue.

While those who opposed it celebrated the news, they also urged that the government should go further.

“After leading the world into a historic climate agreement in Paris and a pact with Canada to protect the Arctic just last week, we hope that the administration will continue its efforts and remove the Arctic Ocean and block new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a written statement. “If we are to achieve a safe climate future for us all, we will have to keep fossil fuels in the ground. To do so, President Obama should remove the Arctic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico from the five year plan—just like he has with the Atlantic Ocean—and continue our transition to a clean energy economy.”