WASHINGTON - Pointing to the BP blowout and risks of a new environmental disaster, the Obama administration reversed itself Wednesday and promised not to pursue offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico or anywhere else along the nation's East Coast.
The decision was hailed in Florida, which depends on tourists drawn by its white beaches, but criticized by the oil industry, which said it would stifle domestic energy production and cost recession-battered jobseekers opportunities for work.
The administration had backed a major expansion of offshore drilling earlier this year, in part to gain support for comprehensive climate legislation in Congress, one of President Obama's top legislative goals.
With that bill now off the table, the president stands much to gain politically by saying no to powerful oil interests, particularly in Florida, which is expected to be a crucial state in the 2012 election campaign.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar denied politics played a role, saying the BP spill taught officials a number of lessons, "most importantly that we need to proceed with caution and focus on creating a more stringent regulatory regime."
The new drilling focus would be on areas with leases that are currently active in the central and western Gulf of Mexico.
"In the gulf and the Atlantic we are adjusting our strategy," Salazar said. "We believe the most appropriate course of action is to focus development on areas with existing leases and not expand to new areas at this time."
Under the revised plan, the Interior Department will not propose any new oil drilling in the Atlantic Ocean and eastern gulf for at least the next seven years. Already-planned lease sales in the gulf, expected in March and August, will be delayed until late 2011 or early 2012, Salazar said.
Pacific still off-limits
The administration's previous plan - announced in March, three weeks before the April BP spill - would have authorized officials to explore the potential for drilling from Delaware to central Florida, plus the northern waters of Alaska.
The new plan allows potential drilling in Alaska, but officials said they would move cautiously before approving any leases. It does not affect the Pacific seaboard, which will remain off-limits to drilling in federal waters.
Florida lawmakers backed the decision. Drilling in state-controlled waters has long been banned because of fears that a major spill would damage state beaches.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.) praised Obama for "listening to the people of Florida."
Gov. Charlie Crist called the decision "wonderful news" that would be favorably received by the tourist industry and residents alike.
Crist, who once considered opening state waters to drilling, changed his mind after BP's Macondo well spewed 172 million gallons of oil into the gulf. "If that's not a wake-up call, I don't know what would be," he said.
However, Gov.-elect Rick Scott, a Republican, criticized it as an example of government regulation impeding economic growth.
Learning a lot
Environmental advocates welcomed the administration's reversal.
"What it means is, they've learned a great deal from the Macondo blowout and they're taking a lot of places off the table that originally were going to be considered," Marilyn Heiman, an oceans expert at the Pew Environment Group, told the New York Times. "They still need to learn a lot more."
BP declined to comment.
But the head of an industry group said the administration was cramping domestic oil production and contradicting the will of recession-weary voters.
In last month's elections, "voters said loud and clear we want economic recovery and good American jobs," said Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute. "The decision today shuts the door on new development off our nation's coast and effectively makes sure those jobs will not be realized."
Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy, also criticized the decision. She said it came on top of a "de facto moratorium" the administration has imposed on oil production in both deep and shallow waters in the gulf and Alaska.