U.S.: Obama Approves New Coastal Oil Drilling

WASHINGTON, Mar 31, 2010 U.S. President Barack Obama announced on Wednesday his administration’s plan to expand the areas off the U.S. coast which will be eligible for oil and natural gas drilling, as environmental groups condemned the plan as damaging to the oceans and coastal ecosystems.

The plan, which reverses a moratorium on offshore drilling along much of the east coast, could result in the selling of drilling leases off the coast of Virginia in as soon as two years.

Obama announced his plan to expand offshore drilling in a speech in which he addressed the long-term energy security needs of the U.S. and the process of shifting the country towards greater use of clean energy resources.

“But we have to do more. We need to make continued investments in clean coal technologies and advanced biofuels,” said Obama at Andrew Airforce Base in Maryland.

“A few weeks ago, I announced loan guarantees to break ground on America’s first new nuclear facility in three decades, a project that will create thousands of jobs. And in the short term, as we transition to cleaner energy sources, we’ll have to make tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development in ways that protect communities and coastlines,” he continued, while standing in front of an F/A-18 fighter jet which runs on biofuel.

Environmental groups and activists embraced Obama’s announcement to “ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy” but took issue with the announcement to repeal the 20-year ban on offshore drilling.

“Offshore drilling carries significant environmental risks without truly increasing our energy independence. There are many areas that are just too sensitive for offshore drilling, which threatens our oceans, sea life and coastal communities, including economic interests in these areas,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The coastline from New Jersey northwards and the Pacific Coast from Mexico to Canada will remain closed to all oil and gas exploration.

The environmentally sensitive Bristol Bay in Alaska will remain protected from new drilling or exploration but portions of the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea, areas in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska, could be eligible for drilling.

“There will be those who strongly disagree with this decision, including those who say we should not open any new areas to drilling,” said Obama.

“But what I want to emphasise is that this announcement is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy. And the only way this transition will succeed is if it strengthens our economy in the short term and long term. To fail to recognize this reality would be a mistake,” he said.

Proponents of offshore oil drilling have loudly argued that quickest route to increased U.S. energy self-sufficiency is by expanding the domestic resources available for exploration and have expressed disappointment that the administration’s energy security plans do not go far enough.

“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 of 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?'” House Republican Leader John Boehner said in a statement Wednesday morning.

Obama tried to address these criticisms.

“They’d deny the fact that with less than two percent of oil reserves, but more than 20 percent of world consumption, drilling alone cannot come close to meeting our long-term energy needs, and that for the sake of the planet and our energy independence, we need to begin the transition to cleaner fuels now,” Obama argued.

The announcement comes as the Senate is expected to make a push in coming weeks to pass a climate bill before midterm elections.

The White House and Senate Democrats have fought hard to win the votes of crucial Senate Republican and moderate Democrats and the expansion of domestic areas available for oil drilling is a major concession to the oil-industry and pro-drilling interests.

But the administration’s decision risks a backlash from politicians from coastal states and environmental groups who argue the expansion of offshore drilling threatens coastal ecosystems.

“Drilling our coasts will doing nothing to lower gas prices or create energy independence. It will only jeopardise beaches, marine life, and coastal tourist economies, all so the oil industry can make a short-term profit,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune.

“President Obama has taken important steps to combat global warming pollution and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Our nation’s increasing investment in clean energy and efficiency measures make drilling in sensitive coastal areas even more unnecessary,” he concluded.By Eli Clifton

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