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Critics Claim Offshore Drilling Plan a Half-Step Toward Energy Independence

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President Obama speaks about energy security March 31 at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. (AP Photo)

President Obama's decision to open up the nation's shores to new oil drilling drew complaints from both sides of the aisle Wednesday, as environmentalists and congressional Republicans alike claimed the move would do little for America's energy independence. 

The president, in announcing the plan to allow drilling off the Eastern seaboard and potentially the western coast of Florida, said he anticipated the pushback. Yet, on the heels of a health care reform victory that cleared the way for work on other domestic challenges, the president defended his proposal, saying that "homegrown fuels" are needed to move away from foreign oil and help "transition" to more clean-energy sources. 

The announcement appeared in part to be a bid for GOP support -- but Republicans swiftly panned the policy change as a weak, half-hearted attempt at domestic oil exploration. 

Obama lifted a 20-year moratorium on exploration and drilling on the Atlantic seaboard from the northern tip of Delaware down to central Florida and approved it for a new section of the Gulf of Mexico and the Cook Inlet in Alaska. But exploration is expected to last years, and no lease sales will be held before 2012. It may take up to a decade to move oil and natural gas to marketplace. 

In addition, no exploration or drilling would be permitted along the entire West Coast, even though Congress green-lighted it in 2008. 

"The Obama administration continues to defy the will of the American people, who strongly supported the bipartisan decision of Congress in 2008 to lift the moratorium on offshore drilling not just off the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, but off the Pacific Coast and Alaskan shores as well," House Minority Leader John Boehner said in a written statement. "Keeping the Pacific Coast and Alaska, as well as the most promising resources off the Gulf of Mexico, under lock and key makes no sense at a time when gasoline prices are rising and Americans are asking 'Where are the jobs?'" 

Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., called the plan a "smokescreen" that would delay new exploration until at least 2012 and include a "fraction" of the resources in the Bush administration's plan. 

"Unfortunately, this is yet another feeble attempt to gain votes for the president's national energy tax bill that is languishing in the Senate," he said, in reference to the climate change legislation Democrats have been trying to pass. 

The plan would open up drilling 50 miles off Virginia's coast -- and the state could see drilling leases sooner than 2012 for verified reserves. In addition, the Interior Department has prepared a plan to add drilling platforms in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, 125 miles off the coast of Florida, if Congress allows a moratorium to expire. 

But the proposed leases in Alaska's Bristol Bay will be canceled. And the Interior Department also planned to reverse last year's decision to open up parts of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Instead, scientists will study the sites to see if they're suitable for future leases. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the overall plan a step in the right direction, "but a small one that leaves enormous amounts of American energy off limits." 

But while Republicans said Obama wasn't going far enough, Democrats and environmentalists claimed he was going too far -- and wouldn't shake the country's dependence on foreign oil in the slightest. 

"We cannot achieve meaningful energy independence through our own oil reserves," Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., said, noting the country's oil reserves pale in comparison to how much Americans consume. 

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune also said "drilling our coasts will (do) nothing to lower gas prices or create energy independence." 

And Phil Radford, director of Greenpeace, called the announcement a "betrayal" of the people who voted for Obama. 

Obama will offer environmentalists something they like, though, on Thursday when the administration cements sweeping emissions and fuel economy standards that will impact U.S. auto manufacturers. 

The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation on Thursday are expected to sign the final rule establishing emissions and fuel economy standards for the U.S. auto fleet. Those standards call for new vehicles to average 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. It will cover model years 2012 through 2016, and is estimated to cost up to $1,300 per vehicle. 

Fox News' Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.