Why Obama Changed His Mind — and Won't Allow Oil Drilling in the Atlantic After All

  • 2016-03-29
  • Vox

For the last six years, the Obama administration has been mulling a controversial planto open up the Atlantic coast for oil and gas exploration. It seemed inevitable that somesort of drilling would eventually occur in this previously untouched region.

Now that's all changed.

In a surprise move Tuesday, the Department of Interior announced it would reverse its earlier proposal to allow oil and gas drilling off the coasts of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia over the next five years. The moratorium will now stay in place through 2022. It's an unexpected victory for environmentalists and coastal residents who had feared oil platforms could dot the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.

"We heard from many corners that now is not the time to offer oil and gas leasing off the Atlantic coast," said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in a statement. "When you factor in conflicts with national defense, economic activities such as fishing and tourism, and opposition from many local communities, it simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with any lease sales in the coming five years."

Why the Obama administration changed its mind on Atlantic drilling

A couple of broad thoughts on how and why the Obama administration changed its mind on this proposal:

1) President Obama first proposed opening up the southeast Atlantic for drilling back in March 2010. At the time, a major climate change bill was foundering in Congress, and he was looking to attract support from wavering oil-state senators like Louisiana's Mary Landrieu. Environmental groups were livid, but Obama framed it as a necessary short-term compromise — we can't escape oil overnight, so we'll need to keep drilling as we transition to cleaner energy. "This is not a decision I take lightly," he said.

2) That initial proposal was yanked a month later after the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But for the next five years, Obama remained broadly open to the idea of new offshore drilling. "The bottom line is this," he said in 2010, "given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth, produce jobs, and keep our businesses competitive, we’re going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy."