WASHINGTON — President Obama's announcement Wednesday that he'll lift bans on new drilling for oil and natural gas off much of the U.S. coastline drew criticism from environmentalists and halfhearted welcomes from Republicans, even as Obama called it only one part of a broad strategy to reduce foreign oil dependence and enact climate change policy.
His administration will allow further study and new drilling to proceed from Delaware to Florida, starting with leases off the Virginia coast, as well as in the oil-rich eastern Gulf of Mexico. Some sensitive areas would be protected, including Alaska's fish-rich Bristol Bay, a decision that conservationists applauded, while other waters off north Alaska can be considered. No expanded drilling is being considered off the West Coast below Canada.
"This is not a decision that I've made lightly," Obama said at Maryland's Andrews Air Force Base, near the capital. He was staged beside the Green Hornet, a Navy fighter jet designed to run on a fuel mix of half biomass. He also discussed administration policies to make automobiles more fuel efficient and to develop "clean coal" and alternative energy supplies.
Obama said his plan "is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy. And the only way this transition will succeed is if it strengthens our economy in the short term and long term. To fail to recognize this reality would be a mistake."
The policy's framework fits Obama's governing style: To accomplish a liberal goal, in this case climate change legislation, take a centrist stance that may appeal to enough Republicans to win some bipartisan support, or at least justify action without bipartisan support.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., part of a bipartisan team working on compromise climate change legislation in Congress, said of Obama's remarks, "I intend to answer the call by working with my Republican and Democratic Senate colleagues to put our nation on a pathway to energy independence and a cleaner environment."
Conservationists warned of risks to beaches, seafood, polar bears, whales and other wildlife.
Frank Tursi of the North Carolina Coastal Federation called Obama's calculation to get a climate change bill that reduces greenhouse gases by supporting more development of domestic fossil fuel "a delicious irony. He's now allowing increased production of the very substance responsible for the emissions."
"I would say that this comprehensive approach is a lot less 'drill, baby, drill' and more 'drill where it's responsible, promote efficiency, invest in clean energy and create jobs of the future,' " White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton said. "I know that doesn't fit on a T-shirt quite as well, but that's a lot more about what President Obama thinks is the right direction for this country."
Today, the U.S. imports 53 percent of the oil it uses, most from sources other than the Mideast. Most natural gas used in the U.S. comes from North America.