The Obama administration moved Tuesday to allow offshore drilling on the Atlantic Coast while protecting some, but not all, sensitive Arctic areas — actions that angered many and pleased few.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell's proposal — part protection, part politics — would keep the Pacific Coast free of new oil and gas development. It further antagonized Alaska's elected officials, who view the administration as waging war on the 49th state's troubled economy while oil prices plummet. Alaska pays most of its bills with oil tax revenue.
“This is a balanced proposal that would make available nearly 80% of the undiscovered, technically recoverable resources, while protecting areas that are simply too special to develop,” Jewell told reporters.
The announcement was the first step in a multiyear process to develop a final offshore leasing program for 2017 through 2022, according to the Interior Department. The government will spend months taking public comment on the draft.
Among the areas singled out for protection are 9.8 million acres in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska, including the Hanna Shoal.
“These areas are important to the bowhead, beluga and gray whales; walruses, ice seals, seabirds and other marine life,” said Chris Krenz, Arctic program manager for the conservation group Oceana.
Although Oceana is grateful for the protections, Krenz said, he and other environmentalists agreed they do not go far enough: Among the 14 areas nationwide that were designated for potential fossil fuel development, the administration proposed three oil and gas leases for the Arctic.
“Rather than opening more of the Arctic and other U.S. coastal waters to drilling for dirty energy, the U.S. needs to ramp up its transition to a clean energy future,” said Margaret Williams, managing director of U.S. Arctic programs for the World Wildlife Fund.
“Encouraging further oil exploration in this harsh, unpredictable environment at a time when oil companies have no way of cleaning up spills threatens the health of our oceans and the local communities they support,” Williams said. “When the Deepwater Horizon spilled 210 million gallons of crude oil [in the Gulf of Mexico] five years ago, local wildlife, communities and economies were decimated.”
Alaska officials argued that the Interior Department didn't go far enough — in the opposite direction.
The draft oil and gas plan, with its proposed leases and protected regions, comes days after Obama announced that he wanted to designate much of the resource-rich Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness and weeks after he closed the Bristol Bay region to oil and gas development.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) accused the Obama administration of being “determined to shut down oil and gas production in Alaska's federal areas.”
“This offshore plan is yet another example of their shortsighted thinking,” she said.
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent who inherited a massive deficit when he was sworn in last month, told reporters during a conference call that Obama's actions amounted to “being kicked while we're down. We're in the worst financial condition in the history of our state. This is not the time to be doing this to us.”
Alaska's deficit stems from the combined effects of dropping oil production and falling prices caused by an oversupply.
Jewell is scheduled to visit Alaska in mid-February, and Walker vowed to give her a bill for roughly $2.1 billion, the cost of the state's education and healthcare programs. With the U.S. constraining oil and gas development, state officials argue, Alaska cannot pay for federal mandates on education and healthcare.
Jewell told reporters, “I look forward to coming to the state, and I hope I am welcomed.”
Jewell's draft five-year plan also proposed offering up 10 oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico and one that would encompass a large area off the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia — states whose governors support offshore drilling.
Information about the Atlantic's oil and gas resources is more than 30 years old, Jewell said. “At this early stage in considering a lease sale in the Atlantic, we are looking to build up our understanding of resource potential as well as risks to the environment and other uses.”
Several East Coast officials objected to the Interior Department's proposal, though there were no plans to drill off their states' coasts. They warned that an oil spill could spread beyond the lease areas and noted that oil prices were near historic lows.
Democratic lawmakers from New Jersey were among those who complained. Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. said in a statement posted on their websites:
“Opening up the Atlantic coast to drill for fossil fuel is unnecessary, poses a serious threat to coastal communities throughout the region, and is the wrong approach to energy development in this country.”