From Erika Bolstad in Washington D.C. --
The Atlantic Ocean and the eastern Gulf of Mexico will remain closed to offshore oil and gas drilling through 2017, the Interior Department said, in a major recalibration of the nation's offshore drilling priorities following this spring's catastrophic BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Obama administration will continue to review the only pending project in Alaska's Beaufort Sea, and it could proceed, but only after a re-evaluation of the safety procedures and environmental consequences, including spill response in the Arctic. Shell's planned drilling of exploratory wells in the shallow water Arctic could go forward but "with utmost caution," Salazar said.
Salazar said he recognized that "cautious, limited exploratory activities can help develop critical information about the Arctic and its resources," but added that any exploratory activities in the region "must be conducted safely and with strong oversight."
The revisions do not have an effect on areas of the western Gulf of Mexico that currently are under development or planned for leasing. But they are a concession to what the government learned from the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 people and fouled the Gulf of Mexico, Salazar acknowledged
"As a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill we learned a number of lessons, most importantly that we need to proceed with caution and focus on creating a more stringent regulatory regime," Salazar said. "Our revised strategy lays out a careful, responsible path for meeting our nation's energy needs while protecting our oceans and coastal communities."
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said he welcomed the news, which he heard form Salazar Wednesday before the official announcement.
"This decision to clear the way for responsible oil and gas in Alaska’s resource-rich offshore waters is great news for our state and the nation," Begich said. "It's unfortunate the development was side-lined by this spring's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but I’m pleased the Obama administration took a hard look and made the right decision."
The announcement today reverses much of the Obama administration's original plan for offshore development, which came just weeks before the Deepwater Horizon explosion. That would have allowed new drilling off Virginia's shoreline and portions of the Atlantic seaboard. It also potentially could have opened the door to exploration in the eastern Gulf of Mexico off the Florida's coastline.
At the time, the White House also announced it supports development of some oil and gas leases in Arctic waters off Alaska's coast but that it wouldn't allow drilling in the federal waters near Bristol Bay.
There are no planned lease sales for Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas or the Cook Inlet, but they will continue with planning and studies for possible future sales in those areas, Salazar said.