On Jan. 27, the Obama Administration announced that for the first time ever, it will open the Atlantic Ocean off the southeastern coast of the United States to oil and gas exploration, even as the president simultaneously moved to block drilling along much of the Alaskan coast, by designating the Beaufort and Chukchi seas as off-limits for future development.
In making the two moves at once, the White House seemed to be trying to strike a compromise between promoting growth of U.S. energy production and protecting environmental areas from damage. Even so, both actions seem likely to provoke plenty of impassioned public debate.
The plan would open up an area of the Atlantic's outer continental shelf, about 50 miles offshore, that stretches from the southern border of Georgia to the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay in southern Virginia. The Department of the Interior has estimated that the area contains 3.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil, and 31.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
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If those estimates are accurate, the offshore oil would amount to nearly as much as the 3.6 billion barrels that the U.S. now imports from other countries each year, and the natural gas would be enough to meet current U.S. consumption for 15 months, based upon data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency. The area would be offered as a single lease in 2021, and drilling might not actually start until 2030, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Even so, supporters of drilling were reserved in their praise. The American Petroleum Institute called opening up the southeastern U.S. coast "a good step," but complained that the Obama Administration only was only doing the "bare minimum" to open up the area for development. API also criticized Obama's decision to protect Alaskan waters, calling it "a rejection of billions of gallons of oil" from the coastal plain of the Alaska National Wilderness Preserve. Elected officials in Virginia and other states, who've long supported drilling offshore, complained that the federal plan didn't allow the states to share directly in lease revenues.
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Critics, in contrast, warned that the Obama move only would continue U.S. dependence upon fossil fuels that contribute to climate change - and endanger the Atlantic coast with the possibility of a massive oil spill similar to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Some of Obama's fellow Democrats, including Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, of New Jersey, announced their opposition to drilling in the Atlantic, as did environmental groups.
"We're disappointed however that the administration continues to consider opening up new areas offshore to drilling, including off the Atlantic coast and in other parts of the Arctic Ocean," Sierra Club spokeswoman Virginia Cramer said in a statement. "Opening these areas to dirty fuel development is incompatible with a healthy future for America's coastlines, coastal communities, or our climate, and the Sierra Club will oppose these plans vigorously."