Obama reverses policy on oil drilling along Atlantic coast

© Lyle W. Ratliff
Environmentalists and the US military both welcomed the Obama administration’s cancellation of anticipated oil drilling permits for parts of the Atlantic Ocean. Plans for the energy resource expansion had been in place for a year before the reversal.

Announced Tuesday, President Barack Obama’s about-face plays into the narrative that his focus is on his legacy during the last year in the White House, but the move also comes after a substantial build-up in the opposition to further oil and natural gas exploration.

The Department of the Interior, which would have been handling the 2017-2022 excavation contracts, issued a statement through Secretary Sally Jewel citing the Pentagon and about one hundred coastal communities from Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia as major factors in the decision to drop the plan.

“We heard from many corners that now is not the time to offer oil and gas leasing off the Atlantic coast,” Secretary Jewell said in a statement. “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 any lease sales in the coming five years.”

The Department of the Interior estimates over 3 billion barrels of oil and 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are waiting to be procured from the Atlantic’s outer continental shelf.

Similar to Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline in November, this move came after an extended period of opposition lobbying from environmentally-minded constituents. However, other parts of the president’s oil drilling plan remain in place, including 10 leases for oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and three leases to be sold for exploration in the Alaskan Arctic.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) had conditionally supported the plan for drilling off his state’s coast before it was canceled, saying he was concerned about beach tourism. Former Virginia governor and current Senator Tim Kaine (D) also had favored ending the ban on Atlantic drilling, so he was surprised when he heard the Department of Defense took a different view.

“The DoD has been relatively quiet during this public debate and has never shared their objections with me before,” Senator Kaine told The Washington Post.

Pentagon spokesman Matthew Allen said their evaluation identifying “areas where the [Defense’s] offshore readiness activities are not compatible, partially compatible or minimally impacted by oil and gas activities,” came at the behest of Interior Secretary Jewell, according to The Post.

Unsurprisingly, the oil and gas industry had no kind words to say about the White House’s reversal.

“The decision appeases extremists,” American Petroleum Institute president and CEO Jack Gerard said in a statement. “This is not how you harness America’s economic and diplomatic potential.”

Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the US Chamber of Commerce Institute for 21st Century Energy, in a statement said, “America’s job creators have become accustomed to the relentless drumbeat of anti-energy policies from the Obama administration,” adding that the White House catered “to fringe constituencies at the expense of energy security and the American economy.”

Environmental groups lauded Obama’s shift as a democratic victory.

“We applaud the Obama administration for listening to the tens of thousands of citizens up and down the East Coast and protecting the Atlantic Ocean, safeguarding its beaches and coastal economies,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement.

“This is an incredible day for the Southeast,” Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, posted on the group’s website. “It represents the hard work of thousands of people and protects some of our most cherished places, from the Chesapeake Bay and the Outer Banks to the South Carolina Low country and Georgia barrier islands.”

The new position adopted by the Obama administration goes against national polling though. Last fall, Yale University found 60 percent of Americans supported drilling expansion, though a majority of Democrats, 57 percent, opposed it.

Those prone to following environmental issues closely will surely approve of the new policy, while those who would disapprove may be among the many Americans enveloped by the 2016 presidential election coverage, which has seen Obama pushed out of the regular news cycle.