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In Major Reversal, Obama Abandons Offshore Drilling Plans in Atlantic

The Obama administration said Tuesday it will not allow offshore drilling in the southeast Atlantic Ocean _ a significant reversal from its original plan and a major victory to coastal communities and environmental activists who fought the proposal.

By Vera Bergengruen

The Obama administration said Tuesday it will not allow offshore drilling in the southeast Atlantic Ocean _ a significant reversal from its original plan and a major victory to coastal communities and environmental activists who fought the proposal.

Opponents galvanized around the issue last year after the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management released a draft of the 5-year plan that included leasing waters off the coasts of South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia in 2021.

Claire Douglass, the environmental group Oceana's campaign director for climate and energy, said the news was a major victory.

"This is a huge win, not only for the Atlantic Ocean but for the process that it fostered," she told McClatchy. "At the beginning, the Obama administration made it clear they wanted to hear from the public and stakeholders that this would impact the most, and it's clear he listened."

The White House on Tuesday said the Interior Department received more than 1 million comments on the proposed draft.

In South Carolina, 23 municipalities representing every coastal town and city in the state formally opposed oil exploration off their coastline. A coalition of more than 400 small businesses called on Gov. Nikki Haley to reverse her support for oil exploration, which she has said will bring jobs and energy independence.

Haley called Tuesday's decision "just another disappointment from D.C."

"It's not something that we were excited to see, but not something that really surprises me, to see them turn around and pull the rug out from under us," she said. Opening the coast to oil exploration wasn't just about jobs but also energy independence, and the state government wouldn't have supported any moves to harm the coast, she said.

"Tourism is too huge to South Carolina to take that chance," Haley said.

But other S.C. lawmakers welcomed the decision.

"This is fantastic news for the coast of South Carolina," said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., whose 1st Congressional District runs along much of the Palmetto State coastline. "Residents along our coast should be proud of the way they united on this issue and sent a compelling message to Washington."

Sanford also praised local activists, saying in a Facebook post Tuesday that just this weekend, he had ridden his bike near the beach and had seen residents' "Don't Drill SC" yard signs.

In the Interior Department's five-year plan announced on Tuesday, there are 13 potential offshore lease sales for drilling exploration; all of them are in the Gulf of Mexico or off the coast of Alaska. None is in the Atlantic "due to current market dynamics, strong local opposition and conflicts with competing commercial and military ocean uses," the department said.

Tuesday's announcement was a disappointment to oil companies and the governors of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia who had enthusiastically supported offshore drilling on their coasts, which they said would create thousands of jobs and billions in revenue for their states.

"This is not how you harness America's economic and diplomatic potential," said American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Jack Gerard in a statement on Tuesday's release. He said the decision would increase energy costs and hurt growth in jobs and investment.

In North Carolina, 29 towns and cities passed resolutions against offshore drilling and seismic testing since 2014, according to Oceana.

David McGowan, executive director of the NC Petroleum Council in Raleigh, characterized the critics as a "vocal minority" who did not represent public sentiment on the issue.

"I don't think the president ever intended to open the Atlantic Ocean for development," McGowan said in a phone interview. "He's using this to harm economic development and energy security and national security for our country."

In the past year, more than 100 municipalities along the Atlantic coast, from small beach towns to Charleston and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina and Savannah in Georgia, formally opposed offshore drilling, despite a proposed 50-mile buffer along the coastline.

Local business leaders along the coastline said the offshore plan could threaten the beaches that draw millions of tourists every year, as well as fisheries and the larger ocean economy. Environmentalists expressed concerns about marine life and the possibility of a disaster similar to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

There also was opposition from an unlikely place: the Pentagon, which conducts live training exercises, military maneuvers and missile tests off the same coastline. The Washington Post first reported the Pentagon's opposition. The military has several major bases along the coastline, including Marine Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and Naval Station Norfolk and Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia.

On a call with reporters on Monday, oil industry leaders said allowing access to develop energy offshore resources is critical if the United States wants to reduce its dependence on foreign oil.

"This is American energy security, American jobs and U.S. government revenue tied up by political red tape," said Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations at the American Petroleum Institute, adding that "offshore drilling is safer now than ever before."

"The new five-year plan will determine whether these states will join the American energy revolution or continue to sit on the sidelines," he said.

Supporters of the original leasing plan said Tuesday that tourism, fishing and military activity can coexist and even benefit from offshore drilling, and they blamed environmentalists for alarmist rhetoric.

"It is downright shameful how radical groups used scare tactics to spread misleading and outright false information to communities across the Atlantic coast," Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., an inland lawmaker who is co-chairman of the Atlantic Offshore Energy Caucus, said in a statement.

Offshore drilling advocates, including statewide elected leaders, on Tuesday said that with this step, the Obama administration is failing to present a serious plan to meet the country's energy needs in coming decades.

"Since President Obama took office, he has attempted to kill the coal industry, unilaterally regulate carbon emissions, and use regulatory czars to impose his progressive climate agenda," Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., said in a statement. "Americans want to see us explore our full energy potential and they are tired of lofty plans that don't actually produce results."

Offshore drilling could be a key energy issue in this year's presidential election. Republican candidates for president have expressed support for increasing all drilling, while Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have opposed offshore drilling, especially along the Atlantic coast.

"The exclusion guarantees that domestic energy policy will be a major issue in the presidential election, and underscores the critical need for the nominees of both parties to bring forward thoughtful, intellectually serious energy policies," said Consumer Energy Alliance president David Holt in a statement on Tuesday.

The new five-year plan may not be finalized until Obama leaves office, putting even more pressure on candidates running to succeed him to clarify their energy plans.

More than 3 billion barrels of oil are recoverable on the outer continental shelf, along with more than 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the Interior Department.

(Cassie Cope of The State in Columbia, South Carolina, and John Murawski of The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report. White House correspondent Anita Kumar contributed from Washington.)

(c)2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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