WASHINGTON (AP) - In a reversal, the Obama administration said Wednesday it will not pursue offshore drilling off the East Coast of the U.S. and the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
A senior administration official told The Associated Press that because of the BP oil spill, the Interior Department will not propose any new oil drilling in waters off the East Coast for at least the next seven years.
President Barack Obama's earlier plan - announced in March, three weeks before the April BP spill - would have authorized officials to explore 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 will move cautiously before approving any leases.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar planned to discuss details of the decision later Wednesday. He said in a statement obtained by the AP that 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 strategy focuses on areas with leases that are currently active in the central and western Gulf of Mexico, Salazar said. "Our revised strategy lays out a careful, responsible path for meeting our nation's energy needs while protecting our oceans and coastal communities," he said.
Obama's pre-spill embrace of more offshore drilling was widely viewed as a political ploy to secure more votes for a comprehensive global warming bill in Congress - one of the president's top domestic priorities. But that bill died last summer, and with Republicans winning control of the House and gaining in the Senate, the bill is unlikely to be revived any time soon.
The eastern Gulf - an area stretching from 125 to 300 miles off Florida's coast - was singled out for protection by Congress in 2006 as part of a deal with Florida lawmakers that made available 8.3 million acres to oil and gas development in the east-central Gulf. Under that agreement, the protected region is to remain off limits to energy development until 2022.
But the administration had entertained the idea of expanded drilling, until the BP spill that spewed an estimated 172 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. In order to open more of the eastern Gulf to drilling, the administration would have to ask Congress to lift the drilling moratorium.
The new plan does not affect the Pacific seaboard, which will remain off-limits to drilling in federal waters.
Lawmakers in Florida, where drilling in state-controlled waters has long been banned, hailed the announcement. State officials fear that a spill would damage its beaches, the state's biggest tourism draw.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the decision represents a major step backward for the nation's energy future.
"The decision comes on top of the de facto moratorium the administration has imposed on production in both deep and shallow waters in the Gulf and Alaska, which is already causing significant harm to our economy and our energy security," said Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the camber's Institute for 21st Century Energy.
"By continuing to keep most of America's abundant oil and natural gas resources under lock and key, the Obama administration is ensuring that we will continue to increase our dependence on foreign oil, which threatens our national security," Harbert said.
The decision to abandon offshore drilling along the East Coast follows questions raised by the president's oil spill commission as to why top-level administration officials were not consulted before the drilling expansion was announced in March.
At the time, Obama said he did not make the decision lightly and had looked at it closely for more than a year with Salazar and other administration officials.
But in August, White House Council on Environmental Quality chairwoman Nancy Sutley and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco told the commission that they were not directly involved in the decision.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who had once considered opening state waters to drilling, changed his mind after the BP spill. He called the administration's decision to abandon drilling near Florida "wonderful news" that would be favorably received by the tourist industry and state residents alike.
Crist also said he's not surprised that the BP spill would make the administration take another look at its management plan, considering it was one of the country's largest environmental disasters.
"If that's not a wake-up call, I don't know what would be," Crist said. "If that doesn't have an impact on your thinking, you must not be thinking."
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who has long fought for drilling bans off Florida's Gulf coast, praised Obama for "listening to the people of Florida."
--- Associated Press writer Dina Cappiello contributed to this story.
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