WASHINGTON — The Obama administration floated a plan Tuesday that for the first time would open up a broad swath of the Atlantic Coast to drilling, even as it moved to restrict drilling in environmentally-sensitive areas off Alaska.
The proposal envisions auctioning areas located more than 50 miles off Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia to oil companies come 2021, long after President Barack Obama leaves office. For decades, oil companies have been barred from drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, where a moratorium was in place up until 2008.
“This is a balanced proposal that would make available nearly 80 percent of the undiscovered technically recoverable resources, while protecting areas that are simply too special to develop,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement.
The plan, which covers potential lease sales in the 2017-2022 time frame, drew immediate reaction from Capitol Hill, where Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, called it a war on her home state, and where Northeastern Democrats were expected to outline their objections later Tuesday to drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Interior Department in a press release issued Tuesday, said that it was “considering” a lease sale in the Atlantic.
For Alaska, the plan puts off limits parts of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, citing their importance to Alaska natives and the sensitive environmental resources.
Obama in early 2010 announced his intention to allow drilling 50 miles off the Virginia coast, only to scrap it after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But the administration has allowed oil and gas companies to explore for oil and gas in the Atlantic in the meantime, which is the initial step prior to drilling.
Environmental groups were quick to criticize the proposal, saying offshore drilling had not gotten safer in the years after the BP disaster.
“This 5-year plan could destroy our coastal economies for decades to come, costing future generations the fishing livelihoods that have been part of their local fabric for generations,” said Oceana’s vice president Jacqueline Savitz.
According to documents obtained by The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act, at least four firms have filed applications with federal fisheries managers to conduct wide-scale seismic imaging surveys in the Atlantic to explore for oil and gas deposits.
The applications for “incidental harassment” of marine animals including endangered right whales are currently being reviewed by NOAA Fisheries.
The projects involve towing seismic air guns behind vessels for hundreds of miles, over months and years. The guns emit strong bursts of air and sound, which allow crews to create two-and-three-dimensional images of the seafloor.
Associated Press reporter Jason Dearen contributed reporting from Miami.