The Obama administration announced yesterday that it was withdrawing plans for expanding oil drilling in the Gulf and Atlantic Ocean. The news was met with cheers of approval by environmentalists who had condemned the administration's move in March to back additional drilling.
"This decision is a wise and sensible step to protect Florida, the Atlantic Coast and the Pacific Coast from an inevitable disaster from expanded drilling," said Oceana Executive Director Andrew Sharpless.
In March, a month before the BP oil spill, the Interior Department decided that it would support ending the longstanding drilling ban in the Atlantic Ocean and eastern Gulf of Mexico around Florida. However, on Dec. 1, citing too much risk of another disaster, the department reversed that decision, ensuring there will be no drilling in these areas until at least 2017.
The BP spill prompted massive campaigns asking the president to do everything from cracking down on oil companies with tougher regulations and penalties to slowing down and even ending offshore drilling altogether.
The reversal by the administration does not include deepwater drilling in the western Gulf, the area of the spill, which will continue under new safety regulations. Also not included in the ban is oil drilling by companies in the Arctic's fragile Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
In Alaska, the administration is suspending new oil lease sales through 2012 but has left open the possibility of future oil and gas development in the Arctic after completion of studies of possible environmental impacts and oil response capabilities. Longstanding prohibitions on new drilling along the Pacific Coast remain in effect.
Not surprisingly, GOP leaders have already attacked the president for the move.
"We shouldn't allow this single event [referring to the BP spill, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history] to disrupt our long-term need for an all-of-the-above energy plan that includes the responsible development of our nation's oil and gas resources," declared Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. Hastings is the likely incoming chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell of Virginia called the administration's move "an irresponsible and shortsighted decision." Virginia's Democratic Sen. Mark Warner also said he was unhappy with Obama's decision. A spokesman for Warner said, "While it is appropriate to take time to incorporate lessons learned from the Gulf disaster, Sen. Warner sees no reason to delay this process for what realistically could be another seven years or more."
Most observers, however, saw many reasons for the administration's action. Some believe the administration may want to use it as a bargaining chip on environmental issues, as Republicans exercise their increased clout on Capitol Hill.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has already suggested that the drilling decision could be revisited under a "broader" energy plan. He said the administration would be willing to discuss the moratorium on drilling if such discussion were part of putting together a bigger, "balanced" energy package that emphasizes efficiency, renewable energy and research and development into green technologies.
A sign that the administration wants to fight on environmental issues is the continued refusal by Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson to pull back on any of the many rules her agency is in the process of finalizing, including new limits on carbon dioxide emissions from industrial sources such as power plants, oil refineries and chemical plants.
With the race for House Science Committee chair between Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., a denouncer of climate science, and Ralph Hall, R-Texas, a doubter of climate science, with the GOP planning to terminate the House climate committee altogether, and with the Republicans planning to make life difficult for Jackson by calling her in for hearings, some say she will have to adjust her agenda.
She told the Washington Post Dec. 1, however, that Republican gains in Congress don't influence how she sees the EPA's role. "Before the last election we should have just been doing our job based on science and the law. And after the election we should just do our job based on science and the law."
Jackson, the daughter of a postal worker, grew up in New Orleans' Ninth Ward. She rescued her mother, stepfather and aunt during Hurricane Katrina and visited the region repeatedly during the BP oil spill.
Photo: Sierra Club CC 2.0