US bars Atlantic drilling; Obama builds environmental legacy

FILE - In this Dec. 9, 2015 file photo, Interior Sally Jewell testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. In a major reversal, the Obama administration says it will not allow oil drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made the announcement Tuesday on Twitter, declaring that the administration's next five-year offshore drilling plan "protects the Atlantic for future generations." (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON (AP/WAVY) — In a major reversal, the Obama administration said Tuesday it will bar oil drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, a move cheered by environmentalists and consistent with the president’s aggressive steps to combat climate change.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the decision “protects the Atlantic for future generations.”

The decision reverses a January 2015 proposal that would have opened up sites more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) off Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia to oil drilling no earlier than 2021.

The decision comes as President Barack Obama, in his final year in office, continues to build an environmental legacy that includes a global agreement to curb climate change and an ambitious plan to reduce carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants.

The drilling ban is likely to become an issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. Both Democratic candidates oppose drilling in the Atlantic, while Republicans vow to expand drilling.

Environmental groups hailed the decision. “President Obama has taken a giant step for our oceans, for coastal economies and for mitigating climate change,” said Jacqueline Savitz, vice president of Oceana, an environmental group.

Locally, a group called the Surfrider Foundation, which petitioned the Virginia Beach City Council to reverse a 2010 decision to support drilling, says the reversal by the administration is a sign that small voices banned together to be heard.

“Our mission is to protect the ocean, waves and beaches, and here in Virginia Beach there’s just too much to risk, it’s too important to just stand by,” said Christina Trapani of the Surfrider Foundation’s Virginia Beach chapter.

“The support of the people and the voices have been heard and we’re very excited about that,” she added.

In 2010, Virginia Beach City Council adopted a resolution to support future off-shore drilling. But, in 2015 reversed that decision. Councilman John Uhrin who represents the oceanfront lead the charge to make the change.

He says virtually all oceanfront businesses opposed drilling.

“I think that a lot of the folks in the resort area are clearly concerned about the devastating effect of a potential catastrophe or oil leak, even a small one, could have on the community,” Uhrin told WAVY.com. “At the end of the day we had to look at what that economic vitality was and compare it to the risk that was associated with a potential spill.”

The oil and gas industry has pushed for Atlantic drilling and pledged that exploration would be done safely, with lessons applied from the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tuesday’s decision “appeases extremists who seek to stop oil and natural gas production” in the U.S., said Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, the nation’s largest oil and gas lobbying group. The plan will increase energy costs for Americans and close the door for years on efforts to create new jobs, new investments and boost energy security, Gerard said.

Several Virginia lawmakers and politicians have chimed one the Bureau’s announcement. Gov. Terry McAuliffe released this statement shortly after the decision was announced:

“Today’s announcement is an opportunity to work with the Department of Defense to address the concerns they have raised, and to ensure that any offshore energy exploration is coupled with a revenue sharing agreement that benefits our Commonwealth. This announcement should also serve as motivation to expand and diversify Virginia’s energy economy in every sector, with a particular focus on renewables. By bringing public and private sector partners together Virginia can become a global leader in clean energy technologies and create the next generation of energy jobs along the way.”

U.S. Senator Tim Kaine released the following statement today on the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s decision not to allow oil drilling in the Atlantic Ocean:

“I have long believed that the moratorium on offshore drilling, based on a cost-benefit calculation performed decades ago, should be re-examined. Today’s announcement by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management suggests that they have grappled with this question and concluded that the risks of such production outweigh potential gains. I am particularly struck by the material objections of the Department of Defense to the incompatibility of drilling with naval operations off Virginia’s coast, cited by the BOEM as one of the three principal reasons for their decision. I have participated in this debate for over a decade as a Governor and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The DOD has been relatively quiet during this public debate and has never shared their objections with me before. I look forward to additional discussions with DOD to understand its position.”

This is U.S. Senator Mark Warner’s statement on the decision:

“We’ve all been awaiting this decision from the Department of the Interior. I take seriously the concerns the Department of Defense and NASA have raised about the potential impacts of energy exploration and development along the Atlantic coast. I also believe we have to take into account the challenge of securing a fair revenue-sharing agreement for Virginia, and the changed economics surrounding oil and gas development. I look forward to getting a full briefing from the Navy and NASA Wallops about the nature of their concerns.”

Virginia Lt. Governor Ralph Northam submitted a letter to the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management last month expressing his concerns with the previous version of the plan. He released this statement on the decision Tuesday:

“I want to thank the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and President Obama’s administration for hearing concerns about offshore drilling from leaders here in Virginia. Over the years, military officials, environmental activists and small business owners have warned of the potential impact of oil exploration off Virginia’s coast. 40 percent of Hampton Roads’ economy is tied to defense-related activities. Tourism and aquaculture generate billions of dollars for the Commonwealth. We cannot afford to jeopardize these important industries that are all tied to the health of our coastal waters.  Today’s announcement is a win for Virginians. I look forward to continuing to work with federal and state officials as well as community leaders to sustain a healthy and prosperous Virginia that brings good-paying jobs to our communities.”

The Pentagon said Atlantic offshore drilling could hurt military maneuvers and interfere with missile tests the Navy relies on to protect the East Coast.

The drilling plan announced Tuesday covers potential lease sales from 2017 to 2022 and calls for leasing 10 areas in the Gulf of Mexico — long the epicenter of U.S. offshore oil production — and three off the Alaska coast.

The Interior Department estimates there are 3.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil on the Atlantic’s outer continental shelf and 31.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Energy industry experts say the reserves may be far greater.

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Associated Press writer Bruce Smith in Charleston, South Carolina, contributed to this report.

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