Energy & Environment

Obama’s pivot on oil draws fire from left

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President Obama unveiled plans Tuesday to open swaths of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans to new oil and gas exploration, enraging Democrats and environmentalists who had cheered him just two days earlier for blocking drilling elsewhere.

The Interior Department’s five-year lease plan would allow drilling in three areas off the coast of Alaska and one in a portion of the Atlantic for the first time in nearly four decades. 

{mosads}The shift in policy, gas prices being at new lows, is dramatic for Obama, who’s been seeking to burnish his legacy as a president who has worked to stop climate change. 

The plan angered green groups who have supported Obama’s decision to restrict other areas from drilling, and raises questions about whether the administration will eventually approve the Keystone XL pipeline. 

The Interior Department is portraying the plan as one that seeks to balance environmental stewardship with expanding the U.S.’s energy sources. 

“This is a balanced proposal that would make available nearly 80 percent of the undiscovered, technically recoverable resources, while protecting areas that are simply too special to develop,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said. 

She also noted that the plan prohibits drilling in some areas and that the administration could close off additional areas going forward. 

“Here is what this plan is not — it’s not final,” she said.

The five-year plan determines what areas will be on the auction block for oil and gas exploration between 2017 and 2022. Jewell said 2021 is the earliest she expects a lease sale to happen.

The plan was released days after the administration moved to declare the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain region of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) off-limits to oil and gas development.

A focus of the plan is development in the Gulf of Mexico, where 10 lease sales are proposed. It includes a new approach to hold two annual sales in the western and central Gulf, as well as a portion of the eastern Gulf.

The move allows for industry for invest more in the Gulf, one of the most productive basins for oil and gas. 

While the plan opens up new areas for drilling, it is tightly controlled.

Only one sale each will be allowed in the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea and Cook Inlet areas of Alaska, according to the proposed plan. New development in the Pacific Ocean is excluded from the plan.

“We know the Arctic is an incredibly unique environment, so we’re continuing to take a balanced and careful approach to development,” said Jewell. “At the same time, the president is taking thoughtful action to protect areas that are critical to the needs of Alaska Natives and wildlife.” 

Four of the five areas deemed off-limits by Obama on Tuesday had previously been excluded from the 2012-2017 lease sales. Those include the Barrow and Kaktovik whaling areas in the Beaufort Sea, and 25-mile coastal buffer in the Chukchi Sea.

The proposed plan, and more protections for ANWR, have Obama in a stand-off with the Alaskan congressional delegation.

“This administration has effectively declared war on Alaska,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said on Monday. 

In the Atlantic, the proposal will open the door to oil and gas development along the coasts of Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia. 

Democrats from Eastern states piled on the administration for floating open areas in the Atlantic. 

“If drilling is allowed off the East Coast of the United States, it puts our beaches, our fishermen and our environment on the crosshairs for an oil spill that could devastate our shores,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said. 

It’s not the first time Obama has proposed opening up the Atlantic. He floated oil and gas development in the region for the 2012-2017 plan but scrapped the notion after BP’s 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

A 50-mile coastal buffer zone would be required for lease sales in the Atlantic. 

Green groups criticized Obama’s move in the Atlantic, arguing it goes against his record on global warming.

“Unfortunately, the administration’s five-year plan amounts to climate denial,” said Stephen Kretzmann of Oil Change International. “The administration needs to harmonize all of its policies with climate science, not just some of them.”

Updated at 8:04 p.m.

Tags Ed Markey Lisa Murkowski Sally Jewell
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