Obama opens rift with greens

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President Obama is moving toward opening the Atlantic Ocean to drilling in a major shift in U.S. policy that cuts against the administration's efforts to reduce global warming.

Environmental groups applauding the president's pursuit of new power plant rules meant to reduce climate change are now preparing for a major battle over authorizing drilling in the Atlantic, and possibly the Arctic and Pacific oceans.

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Dozens of green groups, hundreds of lawmakers and several governors have flooded the Interior Department with letters on the issue. This week, 20 GOP senators called for more development in the Atlantic and Arctic, while 45 House Democrats swung the other way. 

Three West Coast governors want no part in more offshore drilling, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) is right there with them. In the other corner, Virginia Gov. Terry McAullife (D) and governors from the Carolinas want to see the Atlantic open for business.

All signs point toward the administration giving the thumbs up to Atlantic drilling.

In June, the administration gave its strongest signal to date that the Atlantic would likely be included in the Interior Department's five-year lease plan for 2017-2022, by opening it up to new oil and gas exploration for the first time in 30 years.

That decision followed the Interior Department’s release of an environmental review in February, setting guidelines for seismic surveys to test Atlantic waters for potential energy sources.

"It does not look good because, if he weren’t going to allow drilling, then he wouldn’t have opened the Atlantic to seismic tests," said Sara Young, a marine scientist for Oceana, a conservation group.

Geophysical research companies contracted by the oil and gas industry will need to apply for individual permits before conducting tests in the Atlantic for oil and gas deposits, and undergo further environmental reviews, but the decision was a clear victory for industry.

Environmentalists, and lawmakers who oppose opening new areas to development are already pushing back, flooding the Interior Department will comments arguing against new drilling.

It won't stop there, Young vowed.

Oceana, the Sierra Club, and others plan to ramp up their outreach with residents in coastal states, encouraging them to tell the agency and their lawmakers that opening new areas would hurt local economies, fragile ecosystems, risk another BP Gulf of Mexico-type oil spill and undermine the president's work on climate change.

Young said, "there is movement on the ground in coastal communities" against expanding offshore drilling.

The area proposed for development in the Atlantic is twice the size of California and holds only 3.5 percent of the country’s oil reserves, Oceana says.

In a recent letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, 21 environmental groups warned offshore drilling in the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific is squarely "at odds with fighting climate disruption."

"It almost seems as if it would cancel each other out, doesn't it," Young quipped. "More offshore drilling shouldn't be the way an environmental president wants to go out."

The White House declined to comment on green group's charges that the drilling would weaken Obama's climate push.

The next year will prove crucial to greens and industry alike, as they seek to sway the debate.

“In the next year, we will have a clear indication of this administration’s vision for the Arctic Ocean," said Dan Ritzman, regional director of Our Alaska for the Sierra Club.

Ritzman said attention on the five-year lease plan is growing, and that, within the Sierra Club, it is a concern at the "highest levels," on par with Keystone XL and the president's carbon pollution rules on existing power plants.

Opponents of expanding offshore drilling will look to rally support during the United Nations climate summit in New York this September, Ritzman said. A march there is expected to be one of the largest ever organized for climate change action.

Still, industry is optimistic the administration will approve new drilling.

"We will continue to educate lawmakers and public about the benefits and changes the industry and government has made since the incident in the Gulf of Mexico," said Andy Radford of the American Petroleum Institute.

Drilling in the Gulf of Mexico alone accounts for 20 percent of U.S. oil production, but Radford said the U.S. shouldn't put "all its eggs in one basket."

The Interior Department's data, which it admits is outdated, says parts of the Atlantic, specifically off the coast of Virginia and the Carolinas are estimated to hold roughly 3.3 million barrels of oil and 3.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

If the agency does decide to keep new areas off limits, despite allowing exploration, Radford said, it would have great implications.

"It would signal the U.S. is not interested in continuing the U.S. energy renaissance, it would hurt national security," he said. "If we want to continue being an energy leader, we can't have a notable gap, and that means the East Coast of the U.S."

So far, industry is confident the Atlantic will get the green light, along with parts of the Arctic off Alaska's coast, pushed by the state’s senators, Mark Begich (D) and Lisa Murkowski (R).

The API isn't holding its breath for new areas in the Pacific though.

"There's just no appetite for that in the state," Radford said of California. "It's just the political reality."

The East Coast is a different story, where governors in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina all support offshore drilling.

"We think generally we have all [the] signals," said Donald van der Vaart, energy adviser to North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R), of the likelihood the administration would open the Atlantic. "Especially if you consider for past 30 plus years, there hasn't been any exploration.”

Opponents fear another massive oil spill, which would devastate marine life, tourism, and public health, but van der Vaart said today’s technology is much safer.

The Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition, which McCory heads, will also meet with local authorities to address questions about seismic tests and future drilling.

If Obama follows through on opening the Atlantic, he would be keeping a promise he first made in 2010 but sidelined due to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The final five-year lease plan is expected to be finalized before 2017, but drilling would not begin in any new areas until well after Obama leaves office.

Green groups say they will push the climate card as much as possible. But “the fact that carbon wouldn’t be emitted during his presidency could remove him from the equation,” Oceana’s Young said.e (D) and governors from the Carolinas want to see the Atlantic open for business.

All signs point toward the administration giving the thumbs up to Atlantic drilling.

In June, the administration gave its strongest signal to date that the Atlantic would likely be included in the Interior Department's five-year lease plan for 2017-2022, by opening it up to new oil and gas exploration for the first time in 30 years.

That decision followed the Interior Department’s release of an environmental review in February, setting guidelines for seismic surveys to test Atlantic waters for potential energy sources.

"It does not look good because, if he weren’t going to allow drilling, then he wouldn’t have opened the Atlantic to seismic tests," said Sara Young, a marine scientist for Oceana, a conservation group.

Geophysical research companies contracted by the oil and gas industry will need to apply for individual permits before conducting tests in the Atlantic for oil and gas deposits, and undergo further environmental reviews, but the decision was a clear victory for industry.

Environmentalists, and lawmakers who oppose opening new areas to development are already pushing back, flooding the Interior Department will comments arguing against new drilling.

It won't stop there, Young vowed.

Oceana, the Sierra Club, and others plan to ramp up their outreach with residents in coastal states, encouraging them to tell the agency and their lawmakers that opening new areas would hurt local economies, fragile ecosystems, risk another BP Gulf of Mexico-type oil spill and undermine the president's work on climate change.

Young said, "there is movement on the ground in coastal communities" against expanding offshore drilling.

The area proposed for development in the Atlantic is twice the size of California and holds only 3.5 percent of the country’s oil reserves, Oceana says.

In a recent letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, 21 environmental groups warned offshore drilling in the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific is squarely "at odds with fighting climate disruption."

"It almost seems as if it would cancel each other out, doesn't it," Young quipped. "More offshore drilling shouldn't be the way an environmental president wants to go out."

The White House declined to comment on green group's charges that the drilling would weaken Obama's climate push.

The next year will prove crucial to greens and industry alike, as they seek to sway the debate.

“In the next year, we will have a clear indication of this administration’s vision for the Arctic Ocean," said Dan Ritzman, regional director of Our Alaska for the Sierra Club.

Ritzman said attention on the five-year lease plan is growing, and that, within the Sierra Club, it is a concern at the "highest levels," on par with Keystone XL and the president's carbon pollution rules on existing power plants.

Opponents of expanding offshore drilling will look to rally support during the United Nations climate summit in New York this September, Ritzman said. A march there is expected to be one of the largest ever organized for climate change action.

Still, industry is optimistic the administration will approve new drilling.

"We will continue to educate lawmakers and public about the benefits and changes the industry and government has made since the incident in the Gulf of Mexico," said Andy Radford of the American Petroleum Institute.

Drilling in the Gulf of Mexico alone accounts for 20 percent of U.S. oil production, but Radford said the U.S. shouldn't put "all its eggs in one basket."

The Interior Department's data, which it admits is outdated, says parts of the Atlantic, specifically off the coast of Virginia and the Carolinas are estimated to hold roughly 3.3 million barrels of oil and 3.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

If the agency does decide to keep new areas off limits, despite allowing exploration, Radford said, it would have great implications.

"It would signal the U.S. is not interested in continuing the U.S. energy renaissance, it would hurt national security," he said. "If we want to continue being an energy leader, we can't have a notable gap, and that means the East Coast of the U.S."

So far, industry is confident the Atlantic will get the green light, along with parts of the Arctic off Alaska's coast, pushed by the state’s senators, Mark Begich (D) and Lisa Murkowski (R).

The API isn't holding its breath for new areas in the Pacific though.

"There's just no appetite for that in the state," Radford said of California. "It's just the political reality."

The East Coast is a different story, where governors in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina all support offshore drilling.

"We think generally we have all [the] signals," said Donald van der Vaart, energy adviser to North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R), of the likelihood the administration would open the Atlantic. "Especially if you consider for past 30 plus years, there hasn't been any exploration.”

Opponents fear another massive oil spill, which would devastate marine life, tourism, and public health, but van der Vaart said today’s technology is much safer.

The Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition, which McCrory heads, will also meet with local authorities to address questions about seismic tests and future drilling.

If Obama follows through on opening the Atlantic, he would be keeping a promise he first made in 2010 but sidelined due to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The final five-year lease plan is expected to be finalized before 2017, but drilling would not begin in any new areas until well after Obama leaves office.

Green groups say they will push the climate card as much as possible. But “the fact that carbon wouldn’t be emitted during his presidency could remove him from the equation,” Oceana’s Young said.