For proponents of expanded domestic oil and gas production, the Obama Administration hath given, and it hath taken away. The administration on Tuesday set aside sections of the Alaskan Arctic Ocean for permanent protection, but also announced it would open parts of the Atlantic coast to drilling. That will come as good news to a coalition of governors with close ties to industry that was the subject of a Center investigation last fall.
The move came in a pair of announcements from the White House and the Interior Department, which released a draft plan for drilling off the nation’s coasts.
“It takes a balanced approach to oil and gas development,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, in a call with reporters.
The draft, part of the “Five Year Program” that governs offshore drilling for 2017-2022, would for the first time in decades open access to a stretch of the coast from Virginia to Georgia, though the department has yet to determine where exactly any leasing would occur. That decision, which will take years, is to be based on studies about environmental risks, oil and gas reserves and input from various stakeholders.
The plan would also include a 50-mile “coastal buffer,” to minimize impacts on fishing, tourism, military and other activities. But the announcement drew swift criticism from environmental advocates, who say drilling in the Atlantic would harm other economic sectors that rely on clean water and undeveloped shorelines.
While any drilling is years away and could still be cancelled, the announcement hands a major victory to the oil and gas industry and to the governors of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. As the Center reported in November, the three governors — Terry McAuliffe, Pat McCrory and Nikki Haley — have been working behind the scenes with an energy industry lobbying group to promote offshore drilling through a group called the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition.
In a statement, McCrory said he “applauded” the decision to open parts of the Atlantic to drilling, but regrets both the 50-mile buffer and the fact that other areas such as the Eastern Gulf of Mexico were not included. “I, along with other OCS Governors Coalition members, will continue to push for the opening of offshore areas in which state leadership supports development,” McCrory said.
The Center’s report, based largely on thousands of pages of public records, detailed a close relationship between the governors and the industry. Since its formation in 2011, the coalition of seven coastal governors has actually been managed by the Consumer Energy Alliance, which is funded in part by the energy industry and has provided the governors with research and talking points for meetings with federal officials. In February 2013, four governors met with Jewell at a Washington, D.C. hotel to push the secretary to open the Atlantic to drilling and expand opportunities elsewhere.
On Tuesday, Jewell said her department had heard from 22 governors about the draft plan and gave great weight to their input, though it was just one of a number of factors the department considered when deciding where to allow drilling.
Timed with the release of the draft plan, Obama on Tuesday announced that he would use executive action to protect from future drilling nearly 10 million acres of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in Alaska. “There are some places that are simply too special to drill,” Jewell said during the call.
That decision came on the heels of an announcement Sunday that Obama would ask Congress to extend wilderness protection to portions of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which energy companies have long sought to have opened to drilling.
On Monday, the Consumer Energy Alliance launched a campaign “to promote public awareness of Arctic issues and the importance of the Arctic region to the United States.” In the statement announcing the Arctic for All campaign, CEA President David Holt said the administration’s wilderness request for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was “misguided.”
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