President Obama today proposed allowing oil and gas drilling for the first time in large swaths of water off the East Coast, in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and potentially off Alaska.
Angering environmentalists and pleasing industry groups, Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the expansion in drilling would balance the need to boost domestic energy production while protecting natural resources.
"The bottom line is this: 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," Obama said.
The plan calls for exploration in areas from Delaware to off the coastline of central Florida, while keeping the East Coast from New Jersey northward closed to oil and gas development. But actual drilling would only take place after detailed study of the regions, which could take years.
The entire West Coast, from the Canadian to Mexican borders, would be off-limits.
Bristol Bay in Alaska would be kept closed to production, but the Chukchi and Beaufort seas might be opened to drilling after extensive studies.
The plan also calls for oil and gas exploration in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, more than 125 miles from Florida's coast, in areas that are currently under congressional moratorium and closed to development.
The administration also plans by 2012 to hold a lease sale 50 miles off the coast of Virginia and one in the Cook Inlet in Alaska, if the government determines it can be done in an environmentally responsible manner and does not interfere with military activities there.
Obama pledged to protect areas vital to tourism, the environment and national security and to be guided by scientific evidence.
In what appeared to be a bid to assuage environmentalists who will be unhappy with the offshore drilling announcement, Obama used a portion of his remarks to tout his administration's ongoing efforts to curb oil consumption.
He said U.S. EPA and the Transportation Department will meet tomorrow's deadline to finalize new auto emissions and fuel economy standards, and announced plans to double the federal fleet of hybrid cars and trucks.
"So my administration is upholding its end of the deal, and we expect all parties to do the same," Obama said.
The president also hyped government work being done to test biofuels in military vehicles, including a planned Earth Day test flight of a Navy fighter jet he stood in front of during the speech -- nicknamed the "Green Hornet" -- that if successful would be the first plane ever to break the sound barrier on a fuel mix that is half biomass.
The proposal outraged some environmental groups. "It makes no sense to threaten the East Coast of America with spills and other drilling disasters when we're about to unleash the real solutions to oil dependence -- cleaner cars and cleaner fuels," said Anna Aurilio, director of Environment America's Washington, D.C., office.
Obama addressed those who will "strongly disagree" with this decision by saying the announcement is part of a broader strategy to move from an economy run on fossil fuel and foreign oil to one that relies on domestic fuels and clean energy. "The only way this transition will succeed is if it strengthens our economy in the short term and long run," he said. "To fail to recognize this reality would be a mistake."
The president also addressed those who argue the policy does not go far enough, such as House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who criticized the proposal, saying it defies the will of the American people by keeping the "vast majority" of offshore energy resources off-limits.
"Opening up areas off the Virginia coast to offshore production is a positive step, but keeping the Pacific Coast and Alaska, as well as the most promising resources off the Gulf of Mexico, under lock and key makes no sense at a time when gasoline prices are rising and Americans are asking 'Where are the jobs?'" Boehner said in a statement.
Obama said the United States has less than 2 percent of oil reserves but more than 20 percent of world consumption. "Drilling alone can't come close to meeting our long-term energy needs, and for the sake of our planet and our energy independence, we need to begin the transition to cleaner fuels now," Obama said.
The strategy will guide the current 2007-2012 offshore oil and gas leasing program, which was found by the courts last year to be legally flawed, as well as a new 2012-2017 program.
The plan calls for four more lease sales in the gulf by 2012 and after that would open up two-thirds of oil and gas resources in the eastern gulf while protecting critical military training areas, Salazar said.
Salazar said the gulf change would represent "the largest expansion of our nation's available offshore oil and gas supplies in three decades."
The plans calls for exploratory drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the Arctic Ocean, which could begin as early as this summer. But no further lease sales in the seas will be held under the 2007-2012 program.
Environmental groups praised the administration for protecting Bristol Bay, saying it is one of the planet's richest marine ecosystems.
Marilyn Heiman, Pew Environment Group's U.S. Arctic program director, said under the George W. Bush administration's proposal about one-fifth, or 5.6 million acres, of Bristol Bay would have been opened to oil drilling.
"Bristol Bay must be protected for future generations as the home of the world's largest wild sockeye salmon run and the nursery for Bering Sea fisheries that provide 40 percent of our nation's seafood," Heiman said.
Heiman also commended the Obama administration for "proceeding cautiously" in the Arctic. "New leasing should not occur until improved oil spill response capacity is in place and we know better how to protect this sensitive region," she said. "Thorough science and planning must come before drilling in Arctic marine waters."
Likewise, Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said the decision "indicates that the Obama administration intends to make sound decisions based on science about if, when, where and how any future development occurs." She expressed confidence that study will show the more important ecological areas in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas should be off-limits to development.
House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jim Moran (D-Va.) said he continues to oppose new offshore oil and gas drilling. "Drilling risks harm to our environment and injury to our coastal communities that rely on fishing and tourism to sustain their livelihoods," he said in a statement.
But Moran added that the administration has "offered an improved approach to a flawed policy rushed through during the final days of the Bush administration."
As for drilling off the coast of his home state, Moran said he is encouraged that the military will be "granted a seat at the table and veto power" and said that even under the most optimistic scenario, no well will be sunk for at least another eight years.
Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming Chairman Edward Markey (D-Mass.) announced he would reintroduce his "use it or lose it" legislation when Congress returns from its spring recess. "Before oil companies drill off thousands of miles of pristine coastline, they should first use the thousands of drilling leases they already own," Markey said in a statement.
Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the House Republican Conference, called the announcement a "smokescreen."
"As usual, the devil is in the details," Pence said. "Only in Washington, D.C., can you ban more areas to oil and gas exploration than you open up, delay the date of your new leases, and claim you're going to increase production."
House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said the administration "is attempting to pull the wool over our eyes."
"President Obama's rhetoric conveys support for increasing American oil and natural gas production, while the reality is he's proposing a plan that will close more areas to drilling than it opens, and the few areas still available won't be open for years," Hastings said.
But House Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) praised the plan, saying it will bolster domestic energy while preserving some of the United States' most sensitive offshore areas.
Enviro and industry groups
Greenpeace Executive Director Phil Radford said expanding offshore drilling in areas that have been protected for decades could lead to devastating oil spills, more pollution and climate change. "Is this President Obama's clean energy plan or Palin's 'Drill, baby, drill' campaign?" he asked. "While China and Germany are winning the clean energy race, this act furthers America's addiction to oil."
"We're appalled that the president is unleashing a wholesale assault on the oceans," said Oceana Senior Campaign Director Jacqueline Savitz. "Expanding offshore drilling is the wrong move if the Obama administration is serious about improving energy security, creating lasting jobs and averting climate change. Instead, the U.S. should focus its resources on expanding offshore wind and other renewable energy opportunities."
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement that his group is "very disappointed to see important areas like the Arctic coast and the Mid and South Atlantic stay open to oil drilling."
"Drilling our coasts will doing nothing to lower gas prices or create energy independence," Brune said. "It will only jeopardize beaches, marine life, and coastal tourist economies, all so the oil industry can make a short-term profit."
Barry Russell, president and CEO of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said the announcement is a "welcomed first step to addressing the nation's future energy needs."
Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, said Obama "once again ignored the will of the American people." He added, "Unfortunately, what President Obama outlined today puts part of that moratorium back in place. Kicking the energy can further down the road is not a change in policy."
American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Jack Gerard called the announcement "a positive development."
"We look forward to reviewing the details of the proposal, and we stand ready to work with them to make this a reality," Gerard said in a statement. "We appreciate the administration's recognition of the importance of developing our nation's oil and natural gas resources to create jobs, generate revenues and fuel our nation's economy."
Renewable Fuels Association President Bob Dinneen slammed the plan, saying oil and gas are finite resources and reliance on them is "unsustainable," while fuels such as ethanol hold great promise.
"Relying on 20th century energy sources to address 21st century challenges will not solve the problem," Dinneen said in a statement. "America's energy policy must be focused on renewable sources that have great potential for innovation and improvement."
Reporter Josh Voorhees contributed.