The Obama administration recommended on Thursday that private companies begin searching for oil and gas reserves off the Atlantic Coast, an area that has been closed to drilling for decades. More than 3 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 312 trillion cubic feet of natural gas may lie in the area, which extends from Delaware to Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Oil and gas companies have lobbied administrations since the 1980s to lease ocean tracts in the Atlantic, to little effect. The release of an environmental impact study by the Interior Department that concluded undersea seismic testing could commence is a step toward doing so, although it can’t happen before 2017; the current five-year plan for the Outer Continental Shelf keeps the Atlantic out of bounds. Oil industry groups, along with a coalition of governors from coastal states, are hoping to influence the next five-year plan as it develops, a staffer who has worked on offshore issues for Alaskan governor Sean Parnell told me on background. Practically, they’re hoping to find new reserves: nine companies have already applied for surveying permits, according to The New York Times.
“It would be really ironic if the Obama administration, which supposedly understands climate change and thus the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, was the one to open these areas,” said Steve Kretzman, the executive director of Oil Change International. The president previously green-lighted exploratory activity in the Atlantic three years ago, but scuttled the plans after the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April of 2010.
The prospect of new activity in the Atlantic, even if years or decades away, raises a question that environmentalists have found themselves asking often lately: How does the administration reconcile its commitment to fighting climate change with its long standing support for expanded oil production? Obama’s approach to climate is largely focused on reducing demand for fossil fuels, by promoting investment in renewables and tightening emissions standards for power plants and motor vehicles. (If Congress could ever put a price on carbon, that also would affect demand.) The implicit assumption of Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy is that policies intended to discourage consumption will be effective even if fossil fuels become more readily available.
By this logic, the United States might as well reap the profits from our fossil fuel reserves so long as demand exists—until people don’t need oil and coal, someone will continue to supply it. Some of the profits from domestic oil production could even help power the transition to cleaner energy if they were funneled into a research and development fund for renewables.