Offshore Drilling Advocates, Opponents Respond to Obama’s New Policy

BY Chris Amico  March 31, 2010 at 3:57 PM EST

Environmental groups had a range of reactions to President Obama’s announcement Wednesday that he would lift a longstanding moratorium on new offshore oil drilling along parts of the East Coast, Gulf of Mexico and northern Alaska. Most groups expressed concern, but some applauded or tepidly endorsed aspects of the new policy.

On one end, the Sierra Club said that the move was unnecessary and found no redeeming value. In a statement, the group said:

We’re very disappointed to see important areas like the Arctic coast and the Mid and South Atlantic stay open to oil drilling. What we need is bold, decisive steps towards clean energy, like the new clean cars regulations announced this week — not more dirty, expensive offshore drilling [...] Drilling our coasts will doing nothing to lower gas prices or create energy independence. It will only jeopardize beaches, marine life, and coastal tourist economies, all so the oil industry can make a short-term profit.

But the Pew Environment Group focused on the part of the new policy that would protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay from the oil exploration that had been recommended under the Bush administration, instead opening up parts of the state’s Chukchi and Beaufort seas for future drilling. Director Marilyn Heiman said in a statement:

We thank President Obama and Interior Secretary Salazar for protecting Bristol Bay, one of the planet’s richest marine ecosystems. Bristol Bay must be permanently protected for future generations as the home of the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon run and part of a region providing more than 40 percent of our nation’s seafood. With fish stocks declining around the globe, we cannot afford to put Bristol Bay’s vibrant fisheries at risk.

The Environmental Defense Fund, meanwhile, took a middle ground. Like many in the environmental community, they were mindful of how Wednesday’s announcement fit into the administration’s larger energy and climate strategy.

In a statement, National Campaign Director Steve Cochran expressed hope that the move would be seen as a compromise that could pave the way for bipartisan support for comprehensive energy and climate legislation:

Without comprehensive climate and energy legislation, the failed, narrow energy policies of the past will continue. We believe the President’s announcement demonstrates his continued commitment to work towards the bi-partisan majority that will be necessary to pass climate legislation in the Senate.

The President has put forward his plans on offshore drilling after hearing from key Senators that it’s a necessary step to succeed in passing climate and energy legislation in the Senate.

Now it’s time for the supporters of new drilling and an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy policy to step forward and support comprehensive legislation, including a limit on carbon pollution. And the President must provide the leadership and drive to make that happen.

Proponents of oil drilling — in particular many Republican lawmakers — generally expressed cautious support for the new policy, but took a “the proof is in the pudding” stance. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said in a statement:

I appreciate the President’s apparent willingness to consider offshore drilling as part of the Administration’s energy policy. Time will tell as to whether Obama is really ready to embrace offshore drilling or simply wanting to look like he is.

Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said:

Today’s announcement is a step in the right direction, but a small one that leaves enormous amounts of American energy off limits. And the proof of the administration’s announcement will be in the implementation: will the administration actually take concrete steps to finish the studies, approve the necessary permits, and open these areas for production? Will they stand by as their allies act to delay the implementation in the courts?

In one of the states that will be most affected by the new regulations, oil-rich Alaska, the move had bipartisan support. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Democratic Sen. Mark Begich released a joint statement of support. In it, Begich said:

Alaska’s energy companies should be pleased with the green light from the Obama administration to proceed toward oil and gas development in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas under the current lease schedule. As the site of the world’s largest salmon fishery, the President’s proposal to curtail oil and gas development in Bristol Bay makes sense.

But some of the president’s Democratic allies were dismayed by the move. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and chairman of the Water and Wildlife Subcommittee, said in a statement:

Our nation desperately needs a comprehensive energy policy that will lessen our dependence on foreign oil. I applaud the President for putting forward such a plan that includes renewable sources, nuclear energy, and developing oil and gas resources on existing leases, but I object to expanding off-shore drilling. The oil companies already have over 60 million domestic acres of leased area that could be drilled today, but they sit idle. We need to explore and drill currently held lands before risking permanent damage to some of our nation’s most sensitive environmental areas, including the Chesapeake Bay.

For more on the debate, tune in to Wednesday’s NewsHour. Cardin and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will discuss the new offshore exploration policy.