The Obama administration on Tuesday opened the door to oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in decades.
The Interior Department announced it was moving toward holding a lease sale in the middle and south Atlantic, which includes areas off the coast of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
The Obama administration included the proposal for Atlantic drilling in its five year offshore leasing plan, covering the years 2017 to 2022.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the Atlantic lease sale would happen late in that time period, and not before public comment. She left open the possibility the proposal could be scrapped, saying it’s still a potential lease sale at this point.
She said that before there is Atlantic drilling “we are looking to build up our understanding of resource potential, as well as risks to the environment and other uses.”
Jewell said the lease sale, should it go through, would require a 50-mile buffer between drilling and the coast.
Atlantic drilling is highly controversial. The decision does not require Congressional approval but Charles Ebinger, a senior fellow in the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said he expects court battles and environmental groups file lawsuits to stop the drilling.
“It will be a battle royale,” Ebinber said.
The oil and gas industry will also have reason to complain. While the plan proposes two sales in the Arctic Ocean, President Barack Obama also said he will designate portions of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska’s Arctic Coast forbidden to oil and gas drilling.
“We know the Arctic is an incredibly unique environment, so we’re continuing to take a balanced and careful approach to development,” Jewell said in a written statement. “At the same time, the President is taking thoughtful action to protect areas that are critical to the needs of Alaska Natives and wildlife.”
The oil industry has pushed hard to open the Atlantic Ocean to drilling, but it’s not clear how much oil and gas is out there.
The federal government estimates 3.3 billion barrels of oil and 31.28 trillion cubic feet of natural gas along the entire Atlantic seabed. That’s hardly the makings of a boom, and is nine times smaller than estimated oil reserves off the Arctic coast of Alaska if the number are right.
But those estimates date from the 1970s and 1980s and industry and other drilling supports consider them too low. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said the data “was developed using technologies that are obsolete.”
The Obama administration has approved seismic testing to get a better idea of how much oil and gas lies beneath the ocean.
The governors of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia have all called for drilling off their coasts, but it’s controversial in coastal communities in those states, many of whom rely on tourism for revenue.