For the next five years, the waters off the Mid-Atlantic states will not be open for oil and gas drilling.
In a final decision, the Obama administration on Friday excluded areas off the Atlantic coast and portions of the Arctic Ocean for possible exploration and drilling from 2017-2022 in a five-year offshore leasing plan.
The decision won plaudits from environmentalists here in New Jersey who actively opposed any drilling in the Atlantic, but whose elation was tempered by fears that President-elect Trump could push a pro-drilling agenda during his term, and he could reverse the drilling bans.
While no drilling had been proposed off the Jersey coast, critics feared a spill off Virginia, where leases were originally proposed, could affect the state’s coastal environment and multibillion dollar tourism and fishing industries.
In the final plan adopted by the U.S. Department of Interior, 11 potential lease sales will be offered — all but one in the Gulf of Mexico; the lone exception being off the coast of Alaska. The plan can be approved by the agency after 60 days.
“The plan focuses lease sales in the best places — those with the highest resource potential, lowest conflict, and established infrastructure — and removes those regions that are simply not right to lease,’’ said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in releasing the plan.
Industry lobbyists had a different perspective, calling the latest five-year plan a farewell gift to “the keep-it-in-the-ground activists’’ and one that excludes lease sales in the most promising areas. “We look forward to President-elect Trump’s pro-energy and pro-growth outlook.’’
When the plan was initially unveiled, it stirred strong opposition from conservationists, Jersey lawmakers, and others. Plans for drilling in the Atlantic were shelved last March for a variety of reasons, including significant potential conflicts with other ocean uses and opposition from coastal communities.
In the final plan, the administration also decided to prohibit leasing in the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea areas in the Arctic Ocean, a step that also was lauded by foes of offshore drilling.
“We applaud the Obama administration for doing right by the Arctic and Atlantic oceans for the next five years,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “After the hottest year on record, we can’t afford to keep drilling and burning fossil fuels. The only safe amount of drilling for our climate and communities is none at all — that is why President Obama should extend permanent protection before leaving office.’’
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) agreed, saying the president should use his authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to permanently ban drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. “Unlike a traditional executive order, this designation cannot be undone by a future administration,’’ he said.
While declaring the move to protect the Atlantic from drilling a victory, coastal advocates must remain vigilant, said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey. “This is because with President-elect Donald Trump we may be under threat again the future,’’ he said.