WASHINGTON—In a major reversal, the Obama administration said March 15 it will bar oil drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, a move cheered by environmentalists and consistent with the president’s aggressive steps to deal with climate change.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made the announcement on Twitter, declaring that the administration’s next five-year offshore drilling plan “protects the Atlantic for future generations.”
A formal announcement is expected later in the day.
The decision to block Atlantic drilling reverses a proposal made last year in which the administration floated a plan that would have opened up a broad swath of the Atlantic Coast to drilling. The January 2015 proposal would have opened up sites more than 50 miles off Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia to oil drilling no earlier than 2021.
The decision comes as President Barack Obama, in his final year in office, continues to build an environmental legacy that includes a global agreement to curb climate change and an ambitious plan to reduce carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants.
The plan is likely to become an issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. Both Democratic candidates oppose drilling in the Atlantic, while Republicans vow to expand drilling.
Environmental groups hailed the decision. A coalition of groups that oppose Atlantic drilling had organized protests and petitions in affected states, often running into opposition from governors and other political leaders that support drilling. Republican governors in North and South Carolina back drilling off their states’ coasts, as does the Democratic governor of Virginia, as well as the state’s two Democratic senators.
“President Obama has taken a giant step for our oceans, for coastal economies and for mitigating climate change,” said Jacqueline Savitz, vice-president of Oceana, an environmental group. “This is a victory for people over politics and shows the importance of old-fashioned grassroots organizing.”
The oil and gas industry has pushed for Atlantic drilling and pledged that exploration would be done safely, with lessons applied from the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“If the Atlantic is taken out, that means there’s less of an opportunity to invest in the U.S., and those dollars will flow overseas, and we’ll hear more and more of that in the presidential election,” said Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association.
The Pentagon said Atlantic offshore drilling could hurt military maneuvers and interfere with missile tests the Navy relies on to protect the East Coast.
The Pentagon submitted a report to Interior that identified locations in Virginia and other states where military readiness programs would conflict with oil and gas activities, said spokesman Matthew Allen.
Allen said ensuring the safety of service members and the public during military training and testing activities was “of key importance.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who supports offshore drilling, said he has worked on the issue from more than a decade as a former governor and longtime member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Pentagon “has been relatively quiet during this public debate and has never shared their objections with me before,” Kaine said, adding that he will speak with Pentagon officials soon to better understand their objections.
The drilling plan announced Tuesday covers potential lease sales from 2017 to 2022 and calls for leasing 10 areas in the Gulf of Mexico—long the epicenter of U.S. offshore oil production—and three off the Alaska coast.
The Interior Department estimates 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. Energy industry experts say the reserves may be far greater.