Mixed Messages? Obama floats Atlantic drilling plan, moves to lock down Alaska

The Obama administration pitched a plan Tuesday to open up parts of the Atlantic Ocean to drilling for the first time, even as it moved to lock down parts of Alaska indefinitely.

The approach has President Obama taking criticism from both sides of the aisle, and both sides of the country.

Alaska Republican lawmakers are furious at the administration's multi-pronged push to restrict drilling in their vast state. Over the weekend, the administration announced it would pursue a wilderness designation for 12.28 million acres, barring drilling in most of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The plan unveiled Tuesday also would put off limits huge swaths of Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

"This administration is determined to shut down oil and gas production in Alaska's federal areas," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in a statement on Tuesday.

A day earlier, she called the multiple actions by the administration a "one, two, three kick to the gut of Alaska's economy." Murkowski, lamenting that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell did not contact her, quipped that the Obama administration would negotiate with Iran but not Alaska.

She said the Obama administration has effectively declared "war" on her state.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, referred to the president as "King George Obama" and said he has gone "wacko."

Meanwhile, the plan, which covers potential lease sales in the 2017-2022 time frame, to open up the Atlantic Coast to drilling is facing objections from Northeastern Democrats. "Opening up the Atlantic coast to drill for fossil fuel is unnecessary, poses a serious threat to coastal communities throughout the region, and is the wrong approach to energy development in this country," said New Jersey Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, and Rep. Frank Pallone, in a statement.

The Interior Department proposal for the Atlantic Coast envisions auctioning areas located more than 50 miles off Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia to oil companies no earlier than 2021, long after Obama leaves office. For decades, oil companies have been barred from drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, where a moratorium was in place up until 2008.

The plan also 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.

"This is a balanced proposal that would make available nearly 80 percent of the undiscovered technically recoverable resources, while protecting areas that are simply too special to develop," Jewell said in a conference call with reporters. "The areas off the table are very small in comparison to areas on the table."

Interior Department officials cautioned that they were in the early stages of a multi-year process, with Jewell saying they were only "considering" a lease sale in the Atlantic and that areas could be "narrowed or taken out entirely in the future."

For Alaska, Obama issued a memorandum Tuesday placing 9.8 million acres of the state's offshore resources off limits indefinitely. The memorandum withdraws from leasing parts of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, as well as a shallow 30-mile shelf in northwestern Alaska called Hanna Shoal, citing their importance to Alaska natives and the sensitive environmental resources.

"There are some places that are too special to drill, and these areas certainly fit that bill," Jewell said.

Obama in early 2010 announced his intention to allow drilling 50 miles off the Virginia coast, only to scrap it after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But the administration has allowed oil and gas companies to explore for oil and gas in the Atlantic in the meantime, which is the initial step prior to drilling.

Environmental groups were quick to criticize the proposal, saying offshore drilling had not gotten safer in the years after the BP disaster.

But the oil industry applauded the move, saying much of the U.S.'s offshore potential remains untapped. Production from offshore areas accounts for 16 percent of the oil produced in the U.S. now. The Independent Petroleum Association of America said in a statement that while the proposal is a step in the right direction, it "urges the administration to keep all offshore areas available to exploration."

According to documents obtained by The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act, at least four firms have filed applications with federal fisheries managers to conduct wide-scale seismic imaging surveys in the Atlantic to explore for oil and gas deposits.

Applications for "incidental harassment" of marine animals including endangered right whales are currently being reviewed by NOAA Fisheries.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.