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." Officials listened to thousands of people in coastal communities from Florida to New England who said, "Now is not the time to start leasing (for oil) off the Atlantic Coast," Jewell said.
The decision reverses a proposal made last year in which the administration floated a plan that would have opened up a broad swath of the Atlantic Coast to drilling. The January 2015 proposal would have opened up sites more than 50 miles 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. A coalition of groups that oppose Atlantic drilling had organized protests and petitions in affected states, often running into opposition from governors and other political leaders that support drilling. Republican governors in North and South Carolina back drilling off their states' coasts, as does the Democratic governor of Virginia and the state's two Democratic senators.
"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. "This is a victory for people over politics and shows the importance of old-fashioned grassroots organizing."
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.
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 Pentagon submitted a report to Interior that identified locations in Virginia and other states where military readiness programs would conflict with oil and gas activities, said spokesman Matthew Allen. Ensuring the safety of service members and the public during military training and testing activities is "of key importance," Allen said.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who supports offshore drilling, said he was surprised at the Pentagon's objections, which were not raised when the draft proposal was submitted last year.
The Pentagon "has been relatively quiet during this public debate and has never shared their objections with me before," said Kaine, a former Virginia governor who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said he was extremely disappointed by the decision and that it effectively ended debate over offshore drilling before it even starts.
Obama found an unlikely ally in Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., a former governor who opposes Atlantic drillingand led a bipartisan effort to stop it.
"This is fantastic news for the coast of South Carolina," Sanford said. "Residents along our coast should be proud of the way they united on this issue and sent a compelling message to Washington."
Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C. whose district includes Myrtle Beach, the heart of the state's $19 billion tourism industry, said the decision was not surprising. "As more and more recoverable oil has been located onshore due to advancing technology" such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, "tapping new reserves in the Atlantic has become less and less feasible," Rice said.
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.