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Administration reverses course on offshore oil drilling


WASHINGTON >> In a reversal, the Obama administration said Wednesday it will not pursue offshore drilling off the East Coast of the U.S. and the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

A senior administration official told The Associated Press on Wednesday that because of the BP oil spill, the Interior Department will not propose any new oil drilling in waters off the East Coast for at least the next seven years.

President Barack Obama’s earlier plan — announced in March, three weeks before the April BP spill — would have authorized officials to explore potential for drilling from Delaware to central Florida, plus the northern waters of Alaska. The new plan allows drilling in Alaska, but officials said they will move cautiously before approving any leases.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar planned to discuss details of the decision later Wednesday.

The eastern Gulf — an area stretching from 125 to 300 miles off Florida’s coast — was singled out for protection by Congress in 2006 as part of a deal with Florida lawmakers that made available 8.3 million acres to oil and gas development in the east-central Gulf. Under that agreement, the protected region is to remain off limits to energy development until 2022.

But the administration had entertained the idea of expanded drilling, until the BP spill that spewed an estimated 172 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. In order to open more of the eastern Gulf to drilling, the administration would have to ask Congress to lift the drilling moratorium.

The new plan does not affect the Pacific seaboard, which will remain off-limits to drilling in federal waters.

Officials for the major oil drillers and firms that service the industry did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

The decision to abandon offshore drilling along the East Coast follows questions raised by the president’s oil spill commission as to why top-level administration officials were not consulted before the drilling expansion was announced in March.

At the time, Obama said he did not make the decision lightly and had looked at it closely for more than a year with Salazar and other administration officials.

But in August, White House Council on Environmental Quality chairwoman Nancy Sutley and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco told the commission that they were not directly involved in the decision.

Florida has long banned drilling in its state-controlled waters — those immediately off its shores, before federal jurisdiction takes over farther out — because of fears that a spill would damage its beaches, the state’s biggest tourism draw. But even state lawmakers, including Gov. Charlie Crist, were considering opening those waters to drilling before the spill.

On Wednesday, Crist called the decision “wonderful news”

“That’s news that will be very favorably received by the tourist industry throughout the state, but also by the people,” Crist said.

He also said he’s not surprised that the BP spill would make the administration take another look at its management plan, considering it was one of the country’s largest environmental disasters.

“If that’s not a wake-up call, I don’t know what would be,” Crist said. “If that doesn’t have an impact on your thinking, you must not be thinking.”

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who has long fought for drilling bans off Florida’s Gulf coast, praised Obama for “listening to the people of Florida.”

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