The Obama administration yesterday announced a draft plan to permit the sale of leases for oil and gas exploration off parts of the mid-Atlantic coast, a proposal quickly denounced by three Democratic members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation and environmentalists.
The proposal, announced by the U.S. Department of Interior as part of a new five-year leasing strategy, is restricted to areas 50 miles off the costs of Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia.
The administration touted the draft plan as part of its overall energy strategy to expand safe and responsible domestic energy production. It comes on the same day that President Barack Obama placed parts of the Arctic Ocean near Alaska off limits for future gas and oil leasing, although it allowed the sale of leases in three other areas off the state.
Besides the mid-Atlantic and Alaska lease sales, the draft plan recommended 10 lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico.
“This is a balanced proposal that would make available 80 percent of the undiscovered technically recoverable resources, while protecting areas that are simply too special to develop,’’ said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel in a press release announcing the plan.
U.S. Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker as well as Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th), disagreed — even though the proposed lease sales end less than 100 miles south of New Jersey.
In a joint statement, the lawmakers argued “it is unthinkable that the administration would open parts of the Atlantic Ocean, a fragile and priceless ecosystem that is home to such a unique array of marine life to oil and gas drilling and potential damage from pollution and spills.’’
Such a scenario would be catastrophic for New Jersey’s $38 billion tourist industry and cause real damage to the state’s economy and the loss of jobs, they claimed.
Citing the massive oil spill by Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, they argued that the latest plan ignores that reality.
The joint statement continued, “We should focus our energy policy on expanding renewable production here at home, rather than jeopardizing the environment or our regional economy for the sake of more polluting fossil fuels.’’
Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, agreed. “President Obama’s legacy should be clean energy, not oil-slicked beaches off the Atlantic,’’ he said.
The new draft plan presents an interesting dilemma for Gov. Chris Christie, who has spoken out against offshore drilling along the New Jersey coast in the past. With Christie gearing up for a run at the Republican presidential nomination, opposition to the draft plan might not play well with some segments of the GOP.
While the proposed lease sale ends off northern Virginia, a spill still could pose a threat to New Jersey, critics said.
“Given the prevailing currents, any spill there would threaten our beaches,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This proposal is shortsighted because of the potential for a little bit of oil could jeopardize our fisheries and our tourism industry.’’
Drilling in the mid-Atlantic could also require more pipelines being built off our coast to bring the oil to New Jersey refineries, Tittel said.
But an energy nonprofit group that often reflects industry positions expressed skepticism about the proposal.
“The Obama administration offshore proposal is nothing more than a smoke and mirrors game,’’ said Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research. “They will point to the possibility of new sales in the Atlantic, but there is little reason to believe the administration is giving any more than lip service to the areas.’’
Pyle also criticized the administration for blocking any sales in potential resource-rich areas off the Alaska coast.
Last year, the Obama administration also came under fire from lawmakers and conservationists over a plan to conduct sonic testing in the mid-Atlantic for potential oil and gas deposits.