JIM LEHRER: There could be more drilling for oil along major expanses of the U.S. coastline. President Obama today partially ended a moratorium that’s lasted more than 20 years.
“NewsHour” correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.
KWAME HOLMAN: Large offshore drilling platforms, sometimes floating, sometimes anchored to the ocean floor, soon may be fixtures in the Atlantic, starting 50 miles off the coast of Virginia. The first lease sales there could come as early as next year.
President Obama cleared the way today with his announcement at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is not a decision that I have made lightly. 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.
KWAME HOLMAN: The areas opened to exploration include 167 million acres of ocean from Delaware to Central Florida, plus nearly 130 million acres in the Arctic Ocean off northern Alaska. And the Interior Department also wants to allow additional drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
There also are vast expanses that remain off-limits, even under the president’s plan. The moratorium along the entire U.S. Pacific Coast will continue, and along the Atlantic Coast, from New Jersey northward.
Another place that won’t be open to exploration is Alaska’s Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. Drilling was a contentious issue during the last presidential campaign, when Republican vice presidential nominee and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin led the oft-repeated chant of, “Drill, baby, drill.”
Then, candidate Obama said offshore drilling wasn’t the answer to the nation’s escalating gas prices.
BARACK OBAMA: When I am president, I intend to keep in place the moratorium here in Florida and around the country that prevents oil companies from drilling off Florida’s coast.
I want to make a change.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Mr. Obama’s stance softened as the campaign progressed. And, at his State of the Union address this year, he said tough decisions were looming.
BARACK OBAMA: It means making tough decisions about opening new off-shore areas for oil and gas development.
KWAME HOLMAN: In his speech today, he addressed those on both sides of the issue.
BARACK OBAMA: Ultimately, we need to move beyond the tired debates of the left and the right, between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure-all and those who would claim it has no place, because this issue is just too important to allow our progress to languish while we fight the same old battles over and over again.
KWAME HOLMAN: In response, a spokesman for the environmental group Greenpeace called it a disappointment.
PHIL RADFORD, executive director, Greenpeace USA: I think it’s a real let down, and I think it’s a betrayal of people that voted against “Drill, baby, drill” and for President Obama’s vision of a clean-energy future.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Florida Governor Charlie Crist welcomed the drilling announcement.
GOV. CHARLIE CRIST, R-Fla.: I think that America has abundant natural resources. So long as we can do in a way that protects our beautiful state — and I believe that we can with new technology — we should explore it. The president is right.
KWAME HOLMAN: In any event, it’s likely actual drilling in much of the newly opened spaces would not begin for years.