Obama Opens Atlantic Coast to Oil Drilling, Protects Bristol Bay

Obama Opens Atlantic Coast to Oil Drilling, Protects Bristol Bay

WASHINGTON, DC, March 31, 2010 (ENS) – Oil and gas development and exploration on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf will be expanded to enhance America’s energy independence, while protecting fisheries, tourism, and places off U.S. coasts that are “not appropriate” for development, President Barack Obama announced today.

In a speech at Joint Base Andrews Naval Air Facility Washington, the President opened much of the U.S. east coast for the first time to oil and gas drilling.

President Barack Obama (Photo courtesy The White House)

“This is not a decision that I’ve made lightly,” explained President Obama, who said he has been considering it for more than a year. “But the bottom line is this: given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth, produce jobs, and keep our businesses competitive, we’re going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy.”

“I want to emphasize that this announcement is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies on homegrown fuels and clean energy,” said the President. “And the only way this transition will succeed is if it strengthens our economy in the short term and the long term. To fail to recognize this reality would be a mistake.”

The Bristol Bay area of the North Aleutian Basin in Alaska is one area that is too special to drill and must be protected, said President Obama. Today he issued a Memorandum withdrawing Bristol Bay from oil and gas leasing through June 30, 2017, whether for exploratory or production purposes. Rights under existing leases in this area are unaffected.

Bristol Bay is one of the world’s most productive marine ecosystems. Nearly half of all U.S. seafood is harvested from Bristol Bay, which hosts the largest wild sockeye salmon runs in the world, the world’s largest single-species fishery for Alaska pollock, as well as red king crab and halibut fisheries.

“Today is a good day for Alaska’s coastal communities, our fishing industry and our economy,” said Kelly Harrell, executive director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. “We are constantly witnessing the consequences of oil and gas development here in Alaska with spills and incidents happening continuously. The benefits of extracting a small, finite amount of oil and gas resources at the heart of our most valuable, renewable fisheries resources simply don’t outweigh the tremendous risks.”

Fishing boats on Bristol Bay (Photo by Nick Hall courtesy Alaska Marine Conservation Council)

In January 2007, President George W. Bush stripped away the last layer of protection for Bristol Bay, the executive ban on offshore drilling. The Minerals Management Service had scheduled a lease sale for 2011 in the same 5.6 million-acre block of fish-rich waters previously sold and then bought back with taxpayer dollars after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has overseen the administration’s reevaluation of this and other previous energy development decisions.

Joining the President for today’s announcement, Salazar said, “By providing order and certainty to offshore exploration and development and ensuring we are drilling in the right ways and the right places, we are opening a new chapter for balanced and responsible oil and gas development here at home.”

Map of southern Alaska showing location of Bristol Bay

The new energy strategy announced today will guide the current 2007-2012 offshore oil and gas leasing program, as well as the new 2012-2017 program that this administration will propose.

“By responsibly expanding conventional energy development and exploration here at home we can strengthen our energy security, create jobs, and help rebuild our economy,” Salazar said. “Our strategy calls for developing new areas offshore, exploring frontier areas, and protecting places that are too special to drill.”

American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Jack Gerard called the new strategy “a positive development.”

“Exploring for and developing our nation’s offshore resources could help generate more than a trillion dollars in revenues and create thousands of jobs to add to the already 9.2 million jobs supported by today’s oil and natural gas industry,” said Gerard.

Gerard is already seeking to open still more of the Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas drilling. “As we move forward, we hope that consideration can be given to other resource-rich regions, such as the Destin Dome area of the Eastern Gulf and areas off the Pacific Coast and Alaska. We also need to ensure that the permitting processes are handled in an expeditious way,” he said.

BP’s Thunder Horse oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico (Photo by T. Langley)

Environmental groups were quick to commend the President for protecting Bristol Bay, but they expressed grave concern that oil and gas development in new areas off the Atlantic coast and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico would harm the environment.

Defenders of Wildlife President and CEO Rodger Schlickeisen said, “While we are pleased that the Obama administration has decided to permanently protect Alaska’s salmon-rich Bristol Bay and continue protection of the California coast until 2017, we’re extremely concerned about the administration’s planned expansion of offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, south Atlantic, and mid-Atlantic coasts.”

“The administration’s planned expansion of oil drilling risks the health of marine wildlife, fisheries, and coastal economies. It continues and expands our dependence on fossil fuels at a time when we need to reduce our dependence in order to address the harmful impacts of global warming,” Schlickeisen said.

“The Virginia lease sale, just north of North Carolina and at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, puts at risk some of America’s richest marine life and coastal resources, which are the backbone of many coastal economies, generating billions of dollars in revenues from tourism, recreation, and commercial fishing,” said the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“Opening the South Atlantic Coast to oil and gas drilling will do nothing to address climate change, provide only about six months worth of oil, and put at risk multi-billion dollar tourism and fisheries industries. One oil spill could devastate a coast,” said Derb Carter, director, Carolinas Office of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Drilling for oil would risk Southern tourism, rare wildlife, and fisheries for what the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service estimates would be only enough oil for six months that would take seven to 10 years to bring online, said Carter. But it would have no impact on domestic oil and gas prices until at least 2030, and even then any such impact would be “insignificant,” according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

WWF’s Vice President for Arctic and Marine Policy Bill Eichbaum said his group is pleased that Bristol Bay will not be subject to drilling, but he said WWF is worried that exploratory drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas will be allowed.

Oil rig and work boats in Alaska’s Cook Inlet (Photo credit unknown)

“It is our sincere hope that Secretary Salazar will follow the science that clearly outlines the enormous risks we face if these areas are exploited before important environmental safeguards are put in place,” said Eichbaum. “The hard lessons of the Exxon Valdez oil spill still haunt us.”

Gerard, speaking for the American Petroleum Institute, tried to assure the public that the industry has a good safety record, saying, “The oil and natural gas industry has a proven track record of safe oil and natural gas development and the majority of the American people recognize this by supporting greater offshore development for the benefit of their communities, their states and their nation.”

But environmentalists are unconvinced. Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said today, “The oil industry already has access to drilling on millions of acres of America’s public lands and water. We don’t need to hand over our last protected pristine coastal areas just so oil companies can break more profit records.”

“Drilling areas like the Arctic threatens marine life like whales and polar bears. Where there is offshore drilling, there is a constant danger of oil spills,” said Brune. “One oil spill is all it takes to destroy a coastal tourism economy and the jobs that depend on it.”

“We can achieve real energy independence and economic vitality by investing in clean energy like wind and solar and efficiency,” he said. “This kind of power creates good, lasting American jobs and positions our nation to become a global leader in the new clean energy economy.”

President Obama also announced key efforts being carried out by the Department of Defense to enhance energy security, greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards for light duty cars and trucks, and an effort to green the federal vehicle fleet.

The President said his administration now is ready to put more efficient fuel standards in place and establish the nation’s first greenhouse gas emissions standard for motor vehicles.

On April 1st, the U.S. EPA and the U.S. Transportation Department will sign a joint final rule establishing greenhouse gas emission standards and corporate average fuel economy standards for light-duty vehicles for model years 2012-2016.

Announced last May, the rule is a product of a deal among the Obama Administration, the State of California, and automakers to bring regulatory certainty to the automotive market while increasing fuel efficiency, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, and ensuring consumer choice and savings. This measure is expected to save 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the life of the program.

The Obama administration has been working towards greening the federal fleet of motor vehicles. The President said today his administration has doubled the size of the federal hybrid vehicle fleet and before the end of the year will purchase the first 100 plug-in electric vehicles to roll off American assembly lines.

Additionally, federal agencies are purchasing hybrid instead of conventional cars and trucks that use more fuel; downsizing vehicle fleets overall; and requiring plug-in electric charging stations for all new facilities and for major retrofits.

These steps are part of a broad effort to implement the Executive Order signed by President Obama in October 2009 which calls on agencies to cut the federal government’s fleet petroleum use by 30 percent by 2020, among other goals.

Finally, the President announced that the Department of Defense’s recently released Quadrennial Defense Review makes it clear that crafting a strategic approach to energy and climate change is a high priority for the Department of Defense based on mission considerations above all.

The department’s own analysis confirms what outside experts have long warned – the U.S. military’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels creates significant risks and costs at a tactical as well as a strategic level.

The Department of Defense is actively pursuing strategic initiatives to enhance energy security and independence and reduce harmful emissions, including encouraging the development and use of domestically produced advanced biofuels.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.

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