WASHINGTON — Pointing to the BP blowout and risks of a new environmental disaster, the Obama administration reversed itself Wednesday and promised not to pursue offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico or anywhere else along the nation's East Coast.
The decision was hailed in Florida, which depends on tourists drawn by the state's white beaches, but criticized by the oil industry, which said the administration was stifling crucial U.S. energy production and costing recession-battered jobseekers golden opportunities for new work.
The administration had backed a major expansion of offshore drilling earlier this year, in part to gain support for comprehensive climate legislation in Congress, one of President Barack Obama's top legislative goals.
With that bill now off the table, the president stands much to gain politically by saying no to powerful oil interests, particularly in Florida, which is expected to be a crucial swing state in the 2012 election campaign.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar denied politics played any role, saying the BP spill taught officials a number of lessons, "most importantly that we need to proceed with caution and focus on creating a more stringent regulatory regime."
The new drilling focus would be on areas with leases that are currently active in the central and western Gulf of Mexico.
"In the Gulf and the Atlantic we are adjusting our strategy," Salazar said. "We believe the most appropriate course of action is to focus development on areas with existing leases and not expand to new areas at this time."
Under the revised plan, the Interior Department will not propose any new oil drilling in waters in the Atlantic Ocean and eastern Gulf for at least the next seven years. Already-planned lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico, expected in March and August, will be delayed until late 2011 or early 2012, Salazar said.
The administration's previous plan — announced last March, three weeks before the April BP spill — would have authorized officials to explore the potential for drilling from Delaware to central Florida, plus the northern waters of Alaska. The new plan allows potential drilling in Alaska, but officials said they will move cautiously before approving any leases.
The eastern Gulf — an area stretching from 125 to 300 miles off Florida's coast — was singled out for protection by Congress in 2006 as part of a deal with Florida lawmakers that made available 8.3 million acres to oil and gas development in the east-central Gulf. Under that agreement, the protected region is to remain off limits to energy development until 2022.
But the administration had entertained the idea of expanded drilling until the BP spill that spewed an estimated 172 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. In order to open more of the eastern Gulf to drilling, the administration would have to ask Congress to lift the drilling moratorium.
The new plan does not affect the Pacific seaboard, which will remain off-limits to drilling in federal waters.
Lawmakers in Florida praised Wednesday's decision. Drilling in state-controlled waters has long been banned because of fears that a major spill would damage beaches.
Gov. Charlie Crist called the decision "wonderful news" that would be favorably received by the tourist industry and residents alike.
But the head of a prominent industry group said the Obama administration was cramping domestic oil production and contradicting the will of recession-weary voters.
In last month's midterm elections, "the voters said loud and clear we want economic recovery and good American jobs. The decision today shuts the door on new development off our nation's coast and effectively makes sure those jobs will not be realized," said Jack Gerard, president and CEO of American Petroleum Institute.
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