Environmental groups call president’s reversal an outsize victory after backlash from communities that fear Gulf of Mexico rig disaster could happen again
March 15, 2016 — The Obama administration abandoned its plan for oil and gas drilling in Atlantic waters on Tuesday, after strong opposition from the Pentagon and coastal communities.
The announcement from Sally Jewell, the interior secretary, to bar drilling across the length of the mid-Atlantic seaboard reverses Obama’s decision just a year ago to open up the east coast to oil and gas exploration, and consolidates his record for environmental protection.
In a conference call with reporters, Jewell said Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida would remain off-limits for drilling until 2022 because of coastal communities’ concerns about risks to their fishing and tourist industries from an oil and gas spill, and warnings from the navy about interference with its systems.
“We heard from many corners that now is not the time to offer oil and gas leasing off the Atlantic coast,” Jewell said. “When you factor in conflicts with national defense, economic activities such as fishing and tourism, and opposition from many local communities, it simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with lease sales in the coming five years.”
Jewell left open a small possibility for future drilling in the Arctic, saying officials would still consider leases at three locations within the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, and Cook inlet.
“We know the Arctic is a unique place of critical importance to many – including Alaska Natives who rely on the ocean for subsistence,” Jewell said. “We want to hear from the public to help determine whether these areas are appropriate for future leasing and how we can protect environmental, cultural and subsistence resources.”
But with limited industry interest in hunting for oil in Arctic waters at today’s low oil prices, the consensus from environmental campaigners was that, outside the concentration of industry in the Gulf of Mexico, America’s waters remain safe from oil and gas drilling.
“With the offshore Atlantic now closed to new exploration, it is hard to see where growth for big oil in North America is going to come from. Unimaginable even a few years ago, we are now seeing the beginning of the end of the oil age,” Greepeace said in a statement.
There was never any consideration of drilling off the Pacific coasts, because of local opposition.
Environmental advocates called the Atlantic drilling plan an outsize victory for reducing climate change. “It will prevent oil spills and coastal industrialization, it makes seismic testing unnecessary and it will help promote the clean energy solutions that we so desperately need,” said Jacqueline Savitz, Oceana’s vice-president for the US. “With this decision coastal communities have won a ‘David vs Goliath’ fight against the richest companies on the planet, and that is a cause for tremendous optimism for the wellbeing of future generations.”
Sierra Weaver, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Centre, said the decision was a victory for more than 100 towns that had protested against the drilling plan.
“The hero in this fight is not one person or one city or one group,” Weaver said. “It is a collection of determined communities and elected leaders from both parties that banded together to protect their coasts.”
The American Petroleum Institute, the main industry lobby group, condemned the move as “extreme”. “This is not how you harness America’s economic and diplomatic potential,” Jack Gerard, API’s president, said in a statement.
Despite the three leases, the Arctic was expected to remain off-limits to oil companies, in part because of low industry interest. Shell pulled out of its Alaska operations last year. Obama cancelled a number of Arctic leases last October.
In a joint declaration last week, Obama and Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, committed to follow “science-based standards” when it came to sanctioning new oil and gas drilling in the Arctic.
Obama had faced strong pressure from industry and state governors to open up the Atlantic to drilling.
However, there was a backlash from coastal communities, who feared a repeat of BP’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The Democratic presidential contenders, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, were also opposed to drilling.
Obama has given a number of indications in the past six months that he is becoming more responsive to campaigners’ arguments that if he is serious about fighting climate change he must stop the extraction of coal, oil, and gas – not just put curbs on emissions.
Obama and Trudeau took a big step towards protecting the Arctic last week, declaring that any future oil and gas exploration in the polar region “must align with science-based standards between the two nations that ensure appropriate preparation for operating in Arctic conditions, including robust and effective well control and emergency response measures”.
The Interior Department cancelled lease sales in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas last October.
The strictures against future Arctic drilling are unlikely to inflict an immediate political toll on Obama. Oil companies have grown more reluctant to invest the huge sums required to operate off the north coast of Alaska, given current low prices and the disappointing results that led Shell to give up on its exploratory well in the region.