Jacqueline Larma / AP

East Coast offshore drilling proposed for first time

Five-year offshore drilling plan to include Atlantic coast as well as Gulf of Mexico and Alaska

The Department of the Interior (DOI) has released a draft proposal of its five-year plan for offshore oil and gas leasing, which includes opening up areas of the Atlantic Ocean that have previously been off-limits, a move that worries conservationists.

The proposal includes 14 potential lease sales of drilling sites, including 10 in the Gulf of Mexico, three off the coast of Alaska and one in the middle to southern Atlantic, according to a DOI announcement on Tuesday. It said areas off the Pacific coast were not included in the draft proposal due to West Coast states’ historical opposition to oil and gas development.

"The safe and responsible development of our nation's domestic energy resources is a key part of the President's efforts to support American jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil," Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in the release.

The DOI said the proposal took into consideration the balance between the benefits of development and the environmental risks, as well as regional and national energy markets, environmental impact studies, interest expressed by potential oil and gas producers and the laws, goals and policies of particular states.

"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," Jewell said. 

Jewell was referring to the proposed lease sales in Alaska, which have set off a fierce debate between environmentalists, the White House and the state's pro-oil legislators. On Sunday, President Barack Obama called on Congress to expand the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska to include the coastal plain — an oil-rich area that environmentalists say is crucial to the livelihoods of indigenous people, and to the survival of animal species, including the polar bear and caribou.

Citing his authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, Obama went further on Tuesday, designating parts of Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off-limits for future leasing, according to a White House press release. "The areas designated off-limits by the President include Alaskan coastal buffer and subsistence areas that have previously been excluded from leasing plans under both Democratic and Republican Administrations —­ as well as some critical additional areas like the biologically rich Hanna Shoal," the release said. The Hanna Shoal is about 100 miles off Alaska’s northwest coast, and Jewell called it an “ocean garden that drives a lot of the marine life" on a conference call to discuss the plan, the Alaska Dispatch Post reported.

It is the third federal decision to block drilling in areas of Alaska in just over a month. The bans come amid low oil prices and declining production in the state, despite efforts to spark the industry and bolster its economy, the Dispatch Post added.

In addition to sensitive areas in the Arctic, environmentalists are worried about the planned opening up of the Atlantic to drilling for the first time.

"We're very disappointed with the announcement today," Claire Douglass, campaign director for Oceana, an ocean advocacy group, told Al Jazeera. "This would be the first time in U.S. history that the Atlantic would be open to offshore drilling ... there is far too much at stake to risk those populations in those communities for this dangerous practice of offshore oil drilling."

It has been about five years since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and Congress has not passed any legislation to make oil drilling any safer, environmentalists say. The type of operation proposed in the Atlantic would involve deep-water drilling, which comes with the same dangers that contributed to the BP spill, Douglass said.

"One thing holds true: Where we drill, we spill," Douglass said. "The coastal community relies on a healthy ecosystem for tourism, fishing and other activities."

The areas proposed for drilling in the Atlantic contain less than 4 percent of recoverable U.S. oil and gas, Douglass said, calling this a "fraction on global market" that would have little impact on gas prices. Drilling there would take the country in the wrong direction, Douglass said.

The DOI draft proposal said any potential sales in the Atlantic would require a 50-mile coastal buffer to minimize conflicts with renewable energy activities, Department of Defense and NASA activities, commercial and recreational fishing, wildlife habitats and other environmental concerns, according to the department’s press release.

Now that the draft proposal is public, it will be open to comments from states and other stakeholders, including local residents and businesses, for 60 days. The next step will be a final Environmental Impact Study and the release of the proposed final five-year program. The final program would include the schedule of potential oil and gas lease sales and will indicate the timing and location of the leasing as well as other factors, the release said.


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