WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is proposing to open vast expanses of water along the Atlantic coast, eastern Gulf of Mexico and north coast of Alaska to oil and natural gas drilling, much of it for the first time, officials said Tuesday.
The proposal -- a compromise that will please oil companies and domestic drilling advocates but anger some residents of affected states and many environmental organizations -- would end a longstanding moratorium on oil exploration along the East Coast from the northern tip of Delaware to the central coast of Florida, covering 167 million acres of ocean.
Under the plan, the coastline from New Jersey northward would remain closed to all oil and gas activity. So would the Pacific Coast, from Mexico to the Canadian border.
The environmentally sensitive Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska would be designated as a sanctuary and no drilling would be allowed under the plan, officials said. But large tracts in the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska -- nearly 130 million acres -- would be eligible for exploration and drilling after extensive studies.
The proposal is to be announced by President Barack Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland today, but administration officials agreed to preview the details on the condition that they not be identified.
The proposal is intended to reduce dependence on oil imports, generate revenue from the sale of offshore leases and help win political support for comprehensive energy and climate legislation.
But while Obama has staked out middle ground on other environmental matters -- supporting nuclear power, for example -- the sheer breadth of the offshore drilling decision will take some of his supporters aback. And it is no sure thing that it will win support for a climate bill from undecided senators close to the oil industry, like Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, or Mary Landrieu, D-La.
The Senate is expected to take up a climate bill in the next few weeks -- the last chance to enact such legislation before midterm election concerns take over. Obama and his allies in the Senate have already made significant concessions on coal and nuclear power to try to win votes from Republicans and moderate Democrats. The new plan now grants one of the biggest items on the oil industry's wish list -- access to vast areas of the Outer Continental Shelf for drilling.
But even as Obama curries favors with pro-drilling interests, he risks a backlash from some coastal governors, senators and environmental advocates, who say that the relatively small amounts of oil to be gained in the offshore areas are not worth the environmental risks.
The Obama administration's plan adopts some drilling proposals floated by President George W. Bush near the end of his tenure, including opening much of the Atlantic and Arctic coasts. Those proposals were challenged in court on environmental grounds and set aside by Obama shortly after he took office.
Unlike the Bush plan, however, Obama's proposal would put Bristol Bay, home to major Alaskan commercial fisheries and populations of endangered whales, off limits to oil rigs.
Actual drilling in much of the newly opened areas, if it takes place, would not begin for years. Obama said several times during his presidential campaign that he supported expanded offshore drilling. He noted in his State of the Union address in January that weaning the country from imported oil would require "tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development."