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Why open Atlantic offshore drilling now?

Not even 48 hours since announcing a plan to block drilling in Alaska’s arctic wildlife refuge, the Obama administration rolled out a plan to open up parts of the southern Atlantic coast for oil and gas exploration. While lawmakers from Virginia to Georgia support the move, politicians in the North worry about safety standards. Judy Woodruff learns more from Amy Harder of The Wall Street Journal.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Less than 48 hours after the president announced a proposal to block energy development in Alaska's Arctic Refuge, his administration said today it plans to open up parts of the Atlantic Coast for oil and gas exploration.

    The proposal would allow offshore drilling along the southeastern Atlantic Coast for the first time, from Virginia down to Georgia. Companies could win leases for drilling, but would have to keep a 50-mile buffer from coastal areas in case of a spill.

    The plan would, however, block exploration in some waters off Alaska's North Slope.

    We take a closer look at what this could mean, and the reaction to this series of moves, with Amy Harder, who reports for The Wall Street Journal.

    Welcome to the program.

  • AMY HARDER, The Wall Street Journal:

    Thanks for having me on.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, why is the administration announcing this right now, 48 hours, as we said, after the other announcement?

  • AMY HARDER:

    Well, it's certainly not a coincidence.

    The administration has — since President Obama became president, has really done a got of give-and-take with this energy and environment policy. So they came out on Sunday announcing that they're going to put away about 13 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge away as wilderness, which really puts it off to oil and gas development.

    Of course, this plan out of the Interior Department is required by law, but they wanted to show the environmental base and some congressional Democrats that they're committed to protecting some of these lands. At the same time, they're clearly giving some support to the industry by opening up, cautiously, some of these areas.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And how controversial is this announcement that they're going to allow oil and gas drilling, or they tentatively will allow it, between Virginia and Georgia?

  • AMY HARDER:

    Right.

    And I think it's important to say tentatively, because Secretary Sally Jewell of the Interior Department stressed that this is the broadest plan that they're going to consider. When it goes final in the next couple of years, they may whittle it down to something smaller than what they proposed today.

    But the move to even consider drilling off the Atlantic Coast is significant. There's no drilling there now. There's been very little ever in the history of that region to have drilling there.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But is there consistency here? I mean, on the one hand, they're saying you can't drill in — mainly off the North Slope of Alaska along that very fragile coastal area, but you can drill along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, off the coast. What's the difference?

  • AMY HARDER:

    I think one big difference with the Atlantic Coast is a lot of those governors and lawmakers from Virginia down to Georgia actually support the prospect of offshore drilling, because they hope to reap the economic benefits from that.

    So that's one reason that Secretary Jewell cited as the purpose of opening up at least one lease sale in that region. I think it's also important to note that the Democrats representing the states north of Virginia are not happy about this. They're worried about spills. They don't think that the safety standards are up to par enough.

    And so I think you're going to see a big congressional pushback on that front as well.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But is the argument the administration is making, one of them, that this — this region along the Mid-Atlantic is not as fragile as what's in Alaska?

  • AMY HARDER:

    I think what the administration has said is that the conditions in the Arctic are very unique, especially compared to the Gulf of Mexico, where most of the offshore oil is done, and the Atlantic. The weather is very cold, very icy. The season for drilling at all is a small window, given the cold weather.

    But I think that's a point that congressional Democrats make when they don't want the drilling off of the Atlantic Coast. I think that the administration actually did propose a lease sale off the Atlantic Coast in 2010, but promptly retreated on that in the wake of the BP oil spill that occurred just a couple of months, ironically, after that announcement.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And so what has changed since then? They were willing to do it in 2010, as you point out. They pulled back after the big spill in the Gulf. What happened?

  • AMY HARDER:

    Well, Congress actually never passed a law requiring tougher standards in offshore drilling because of the typical congressional gridlock, but the administration said it has done a lot to beef up its own regulations, what it can do without Congress.

    There's also two pending regulations coming down the pike that they will also cite as to why the safety standards are up to par. One is require tougher standards on blowout preventers, which is a type of drilling equipment that was partly to blame for the BP disaster, and then, secondly, there's also regulations coming to require special standards in Arctic drilling.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Amy Harder, finally, how likely is this proposal, as we're looking at it right now, to become reality, to become the regulations that are governing what companies can do?

  • AMY HARDER:

    Right.

    The answer to that question will come in two years or so. And even if there was drilling off the Atlantic Coast, executives say that wouldn't happen until 2030. So I think the plan can only get narrower. And given the president's commitment to climate change, I wouldn't be surprised if they ultimately took it out of the final plan. So, at this point, it's too far early to say.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Amy Harder with The Wall Street Journal, we thank you very much.

  • AMY HARDER:

    Thanks for having me.

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