U.S. Proposes Opening Atlantic in 5-year Oil, Gas Drilling Plan

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reuters_logo1WASHINGTON, Jan 27 (Reuters) – The Obama administration on Tuesday proposed allowing for the first time oil and gas exploration in a wide swath of U.S. waters off the Atlantic Coast.

The new 2017 to 2022 drilling plan begins a process that could take many years before waters off the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina or Georgia are cleared for drilling.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the plan was “a balanced proposal” to make oil and gas fields believed recoverable available “while protecting areas that are simply too special to develop.”

The plan includes a potential lease sale in the Atlantic around 2021 but the sale could be withdrawn if scientists discover that the area is too fragile.

“We need more information,” Jewell said about the oil and gas potential of the Atlantic and whether drilling there would interfere with other plans, including fishing, defense and development of wind power. U.S. data on the Atlantic is 30 years old, she said.

The plan for the lease sale in the Atlantic includes a 50-mile (80 km) buffer to protect those other uses.

In addition, President Barack Obama on Tuesday took parts of Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas off limits from consideration of future oil and gas leasing to protect the areas for Native Americans hunting and fishing, a move immediately criticized by state lawmakers.

The move was in addition to Obama’s announcement on Sunday to expand protection of Alaska’s Arctic wildlife refuge, including an area on the Coastal Plain believed to be rich in oil and gas.

The five-year plan did propose one lease sale each in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas and the Cook Inlet but like the Atlantic sales, those could be canceled at a later date.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican and the chair of her chamber’s energy committee, slammed the five-year plan, saying the Obama administration is “determined to shut down oil and gas production in Alaska’s federal areas.” (Reporting by Timothy Gardner and Patrick Rucker; Editing by James Dalgleish and Bill Trott)

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