WASHINGTON – In a reversal of a long-standing ban on most offshore drilling, President Barack Obama is allowing oil drilling 50 miles off Virginia's shorelines. At the same time, he is rejecting some new drilling sites that had been planned in Alaska.
Obama's plan offers few concessions to environmentalists, who have been strident in their opposition to more oil platforms off the nation's shores. Hinted at for months, the plan modifies a ban that for more than 20 years has limited drilling along coastal areas other than the Gulf of Mexico.
Obama was set to announce the new drilling policy Wednesday at Andrews air base in Maryland. White House officials pitched the changes as ways to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil and create jobs — both politically popular ideas — but the president's decisions also could help secure support for a climate change bill languishing in Congress.
The president, joined by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, also was set to announce that proposed leases in Alaska's Bristol Bay would be canceled. The Interior Department also planned to reverse last year's decision to open up parts of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Instead, scientists would study the sites to see if they're suitable to future leases.
Obama is allowing an expansion in Alaska's Cook Inlet to go forward. The plan also would leave in place the moratorium on drilling off the West Coast.
In addition, the Interior Department has prepared a plan to add drilling platforms in the eastern Gulf of Mexico if Congress allows that moratorium to expire. Lawmakers in 2008 allowed a similar moratorium to expire; at the time President George W. Bush lifted the ban, which opened the door to Obama's change in policy.
Under Obama's plan, drilling could take place 125 miles from Florida's Gulf coastline if lawmakers allow the moratorium to expire. Drilling already takes place in western and central areas in the Gulf of Mexico.
The president's team has been busy on energy policy and Obama talked about it in his State of the Union address. During that speech, he said he wanted the United States to build a new generation of nuclear power plans and invest in biofuel and coal technologies.
"It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development," he warned.
Obama also urged Congress to complete work on a climate change and energy bill, which has remained elusive. The president met with lawmakers earlier this month at the White House about a bill cutting emissions of pollution-causing greenhouse gases by 17 percent by 2020. The legislation would also expand domestic oil and gas drilling offshore and provide federal assistance for constructing nuclear power plants and carbon sequestration and storage projects at coal-fired utilities.
White House officials hope Wednesday's announcement will attract support from Republicans, who adopted a chant of "Drill, baby, drill" during 2008's presidential campaign.
The president's Wednesday remarks would be paired with other energy proposals that were more likely to find praise from environmental groups. The White House planned to announce it had ordered 5,000 hybrid vehicles for the government fleet. And on Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department are to sign a final rule that requires increased fuel efficiency standards for new cars.