OCEAN CITY – Just seven months after proposing to open a vast tract of ocean floor roughly 50 miles off the coast of Ocean City and Assateague to offshore drilling for oil and natural gas, the Obama administration this week reversed its course and issued a ban on drilling off the mid-Atlantic coast through 2017.
In March, President Obama announced a plan to open the Atlantic coast to oil and natural gas exploration in an area referred to as Lease Sale 220, a vast tract totaling nearly three million acres centered largely off the Virginia coast. The announcement caused concern locally at the time because the western edge of the wedge-shaped lease area sits about 50 miles due east from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, and its northern edge sits only about 60 miles from the coast of Ocean City and Assateague.
On Wednesday, however, Obama announced he would ban oil drilling off the Atlantic Coast through 2017, effectively ending, for the time being, any effort to lease the 2.9 million acre tract of ocean floor off the mid-Atlantic coast for exploration and eventual excavation. Later on Wednesday, Maryland’s Senators reacted to the president’s decision to ban drilling off the mid-Atlantic coast, praising Obama for the decision.
“President Obama did the right thing today by deciding not to allow offshore drilling off our Atlantic Coast,” said Senator Barbara Mikulski. “Offshore drilling can devastate the environment, harming out unique and fragile coastline and wreaking havoc on the coastal communities whose economies rely heavily on tourism.”
Mikulski pointed to the oilrig explosion and subsequent massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year as reason enough to put the breaks on an accelerated plan to open new areas to offshore drilling.
“As we saw after the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year, when oil starts to leak, it knows no boundaries,” she said. “I will never stop fighting to protect our beaches, our precious waters and our tourism economy.”
Maryland Senator Ben Cardin agreed the lessons learned from the Gulf disaster this summer made expanding an aggressive oil exploration and excavation program off the mid-Atlantic coast a risky and unreasonable approach at this time.
“The mid-Atlantic is just too environmentally sensitive for drilling,” he said. “I applaud President Obama and Secretary Salazar for making the right decision to prohibit oil drilling off the Atlantic Coast.”
Cardin opposed opening a vast, three million-acre tract off the Maryland and Virginia coasts to offshore drilling for environmental and tourism-related economic reasons. The Maryland senator also voiced concern expanding offshore drilling signaled a departure from a recent effort to explore alternative, clean renewable energy in the region and urged the president to extend the ban beyond 2017.
“Drilling off the mid-Atlantic coast would have brought with it tremendous risks for our coastal economy and the future of the Chesapeake Bay, a national environmental treasure,” he said. “I urge President Obama to make permanent today’s announcement and help turn our nation’s efforts to developing clean energy solutions that will create American jobs, fuel American business, strengthen our national security by ending our dependence on foreign energy, and protecting our precious natural resources.”
The original plan to open offshore drilling in the mid-Atlantic was part of a larger strategy to wean the U.S. off of foreign oil dependence by tapping the nation’s underutilized energy resources. While few would argue with the concept, detractors lined up and raised concerns about erecting massive offshore oil rigs in ecologically sensitive areas, while others voiced concern the proposal signaled an expansion of non-renewable, fossil-based energy sources at a time when clean, green energy sources appear to be gaining momentum.
For example, proceeding on a parallel track although much farther along is the effort to develop a massive wind farm off the coast of Ocean City, which gained a key approval last month. In mid-November, the federal government announced a significant step forward in the effort to bring offshore wind power generation to Maryland’s coast when it issued both a Request for Interest and a map of an offshore wind leasing area in federal waters off the coast of Ocean City.
Essentially, the announcement this week meant the federal government will now solicit requests for interest from the private sector for leasing the vast area off the coast of Ocean City identified in the map, which was issued at the same time. The western edge, or landward most edge of the RFI area proposed for wind generation is roughly 10 miles from the Ocean City shoreline, while the eastern edge is approximately 27 miles from the coast.