Nobody is really happy with the Obama administration’s new five-year oil-and-gas drilling plan, which took a few steps back from the president’s pre-BP-spill drilling proposal of 2010 but also a few steps forward from what environmentalists wanted by allowing more exploration off the coast of Alaska. But neither is anyone really all that angry about the new proposal, which Interior Secretary Ken Salazar unveiled on Tuesday.
“There’s people unhappy on both sides, which is usually a signal that there’s a fairly reasonable balance,” Michael Conathan, director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress, told National Journal.
“They’ve managed to put something out there that everybody can hate,” he said.
The plan to open up the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and the Cook Inlet in Alaska, as well as more areas in the Gulf of Mexico, brought swift reactions from lawmakers, industry representatives, and environmental activists. The common theme: disappointment.
Erik Milito, group director of upstream and industry operations at the American Petroleum Institute, had hoped for a broader reach, but still called the plan “a good first step.”
“Despite our disappointment with this trimmed down leasing program, we will continue to seek more robust offshore lease sales in the future,” Milito said in a statement, urging the administration to reconsider its exclusion of areas off the coast of Virginia and elsewhere along the Eastern seaboard.
Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia echoed those remarks.
“This is disappointing, because the safe, responsible development of offshore energy resources has broad support from Virginians and among the bipartisan elected leadership of the state,” Warner said in a statement, also expressing hope that the administration would reconsider more coastal drilling before issuing a final plan when the current one expires next June.
Environmentalists, as expected, were pleased with Interior’s decision to rule out development along the Atlantic Coast, but expressed disappointment in the administration’s plans to leave development off the coast of Alaska on the table.
The plan calls for one lease sale in 2015 in the Beaufort Sea, one lease sale in 2016 in the Chukchi Sea, and one special-interest sale in the Cook Inlet.
“While we include the Chukchi and the Beaufort seas, we have put off any potential sales under that plan until later in the period,” Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said at the unveiling. “Our approach is to use the intervening years to better address the science gaps.”
Despite the buffer that Interior gave itself with those lease sales, environmentalists still questioned the decision.
“BOEM has taken one step forward by better targeting lease sales,” Oceana Pacific senior counsel Michael LeVine said in a statement, referring to Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. “At the same time, it has taken two steps backward by committing to lease sales in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.”
The mixed reviews from all sides demonstrate the ways in which the administration had managed to straddle the line with this announcement, just as it was hoping.
“Fundamental to the proposed program is striking the right balance between the benefits of resource development, including the economic and employment benefits of resource development, with the imperatives of environmental protection,” said Tommy Beaudreau, the head of BOEM.
Even House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Edward Markey, D-Mass., a longtime drilling critic, praised the administration’s balanced approach.
“The Obama administration’s plan would continue to promote oil and gas production, but recognizes that safety measures need improvement, especially in the harsh conditions in Alaska,” Markey said in a statement.
Still, the proposal represents a scaled-back approach for the Obama administration. Before the BP spill in April 2010 sent nearly 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Obama floated a drilling plan that was far more ambitious.
Just a month before the spill, Obama proposed leasing areas off Alaska’s coast, but also off the Atlantic Coast and further into the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The plan was intended to reduce foreign-oil dependence and generate revenue from the sale of offshore leases, and at the time, Obama was also seeking concessions from Republicans and moderate Democrats on comprehensive climate legislation that was to be taken up by the Senate a few weeks later.
“We need to move beyond the tired debates of the left and the right, between the business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure-all and those would claim it has no place,” Obama said in a speech promoting his plans on March 31, 2010. But the BP spill that began a few weeks later blew those plans out of the water.
Some of the ideas for opening areas in the Atlantic and Arctic were similar to those floated by President George W. Bush while he was in office, but Obama’s 2010 plan still held back from opening Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the Pacific Coast, and areas north of New Jersey along the Atlantic Coast.
The plan released on Tuesday scales that back even more. Even though Interior said the five-year plan would open up more than 75 percent of potential resources through 15 lease sales in six offshore areas, the proposal doesn’t include anything off the Atlantic Coast nor in parts of the eastern Gulf of Mexico that are still under a congressional ban. Specifically, the new proposed areas include five annual lease sales to begin in the fall of 2012 in the western Gulf of Mexico; five annual lease sales beginning in the spring of 2013 in the central Gulf; and two lease sales in 2014 and 2016 in areas of the eastern Gulf that are not under the existing moratorium.
Though Obama’s more-ambitious plans in the spring of 2010 were tempered by the BP spill, Jacqueline Savitz, Oceana’s senior campaign director, said the new proposal “is still a big concession to the industry.
“I think the spill really opened people’s eyes. I’m surprised, though, at how short our memories are,” she added.
This article appears in the November 9, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.