Oil and Gas Exploration

White House to Propose Allowing Oil Drilling Off Atlantic Coast

Coral Davenport
Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010.
Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Tuesday will announce a proposal to open up coastal waters from Virginia to Georgia for oil and gas drilling, according to a person briefed on the plan.

At the same time, in Alaska, the administration will ban drilling in some portions of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, according to the personal familiar with the plans, who could not speak publicly about them until the announcement.

Opening the Eastern Seaboard to oil companies is a prize the industry has sought for decades and is a blow to environmental groups. They argue that the move would put the coasts of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia at risk for an environmental disaster like the BP spill that struck the Gulf Coast in 2010, when millions of barrels of oil washed ashore after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig.

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The move to ban drilling in some Arctic waters is certain to enrage Alaskan lawmakers who are already angry about an administration plan, announced during the weekend, to provide tougher environmental protections in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a 19-million-acre sanctuary that is believed to contain large reserves of oil and gas.

The proposals are part of the Interior Department's latest five-year plan, which lays out proposals to sell federal leases for oil and gas development from 2017 to 2022.

The plan is subject to months of public hearings, and could be revised, but it does not require congressional approval.

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In opening up the Atlantic Coast for drilling while closing areas off Alaska, Mr. Obama is deploying a strategy that he has frequently used in forging environmental policy — giving both the oil industry and environmentalists a win and a loss.

"The administration remains far more bullish on offshore leasing than its environmental allies would like, if less so than industry and the G.O.P. wish," said Paul Bledsoe, an Interior Department official during the Clinton administration. "Proposing new offshore leasing the same week as limiting ANWR development seems intended to strike a deliberate balance between supply expansion and environmental protection."

It will not be the first time that the Obama White House has proposed offshore drilling in the Atlantic. In early 2010, before the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, the administration proposed a five-year plan that would have allowed the federal government to sell drilling leases in the federal waters off Virginia. The administration abandoned that idea after the Gulf Coast spill in April.

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Environmental groups said the prospect of Atlantic drilling is a risk that could lead to a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010.

"Opening Atlantic waters to offshore drilling would take us in exactly the wrong direction," said Bob Deans, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It would ignore the lessons of the disastrous BP blowout, the need to protect future generations from the dangers of climate change and the promise of a clean-energy future."

"The BP blowout oiled a thousand miles of coastline, about the distance from Savannah to Boston," Mr. Deans said. "Opening up part of the Atlantic to drilling could expose the entire Eastern Seaboard to the risks of a catastrophic blowout."

Oil companies believe there is an energy bonanza beneath the Atlantic waters.

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The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement estimates that there are 3.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil on the Atlantic's outer continental shelf and 31.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The estimates are based on two-dimensional seismic surveys that were done in the early 1980s, and energy industry experts say the true reserves may be far higher.

The industry also contends that it has learned lessons from the 2010 oil spill. Although no new laws governing offshore drilling safety have been passed since then, the big companies say the spill led to tighter industry standards that are designed to avoid such catastrophes.

BP is already facing a record $13.7 billion in potential fines under the Clean Water Act for its role in the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Despite the risks posed by offshore drilling, lawmakers in Virginia and other Southeastern states have pushed to open up their waters to oil companies, lured by the prospect of new revenues. Both of Virginia's Democratic senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, support drilling off their state's coast.