Georgians cheer, jeer Obama decision to block Atlantic drilling

The White House killed plans Tuesday to allow oil and gas drilling off the coast of Georgia and the entire Southeast, delighting environmental groups and many coastal residents while angering some politicians and energy industry officials.

The decision, nonetheless, burnishes President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy. And it will almost certainly enter the presidential campaign scrum with Republicans expected to trash the president’s decision and Democrats supporting it.

U.S. Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell listed a number of reasons for carving Southeastern waters from the administration’s overall plan to allow exploration in sections of the Gulf of Mexico and off the Alaskan coast: Department of Defense opposition; current energy prices; too few rigs and pipes; and strong opposition from coastal communities.

In Georgia, for example, a half-dozen communities including Savannah and St. Marys passed resolutions opposing the drilling — and potential oil spills — as detrimental to their tourism and fishing industries.

“Today’s announcement is great for business,” Jeff Downey, who co-owns a Savannah restaurant, said in a statement. “Whether you look at the environmental costs, the cost to our business’ bottom lines or the cost to our families, our coasts are worth more when they are oil-free.”

The energy industry, along with U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, a Republican who represents coastal Georgia, said Obama’s decision will cost jobs and revenue. Georgia alone would ultimately reap 5,088 new jobs and $2 billion in economic activity and new taxes if drilling were allowed, according to an industry-backed 2013 report.

“It’s just troubling that they would ignore the support expressed by governors and legislators and public opinion allthe way from Virginia down to Georgia,” Carter said. “It’s very short-sighted. I can still remember when the Middle East literally held us over a barrel of oil. I’ve always said we need to be energy-independent.”

Obama angered environmentalists and coastal residents last year when the Department of Interior put forth a plan to open up much of the Southeastern Atlantic coast to drilling for the first time. The agency estimated that more than 3 billion barrels of oil and 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lies beneath the outer continental shelf off Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia.

Environmental groups undertook a well-oiled grass-roots campaign to oppose the drilling. They enlisted coastal residents, commercial fishermen and business owners, such as Downey, in a full-throated campaign against drilling at town hall meetings and in comments to Washington. Many feared another Deepwater Horizon disaster — the 2010 explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 people and inundated shorelines from Florida to Texas with millions of gallons of oil.

Nearly 110 communities along the Atlantic, including Brunswick and Tybee Island, passed resolutions in opposition to testing or drilling. And they countered the oil and gas industry’s economic impact estimates — which they deemed wildly inflated — with their own estimate of $2 billion that the tourism industry brings to the coast.

“President Obama … protected marine life, world famous beaches and family vacations from Savannah to Cumberland Island,” said Jennette Gayer, the director of the nonprofit Environment Georgia.

The Interior Department suggested that opposition by the U.S. military played a key role in its decision to abandon offshore drilling. The Pentagon said that exploration and drilling would interfere with military maneuvers, training exercises and missile tests conducted by the Navy. Military installations dot the coastline of all four states, including the Kings Bay submarine base in St. Marys.

“This is a balanced proposal that protects sensitive resources and supports safe and responsible development of the nation’s domestic energy resources to create jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” Jewell said. “It simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with any lease sales in the coming five years.”

Tuesday’s decision boosts the president’s environmental bona fides. Last November, for example, the president turned down the Keystone XL pipeline, an oil project across the nation’s heartland. His environmental legacy also includes an international climate change initiative and regulatory mandates reducing the use of coal.

“This is an incredible day for the Southeast,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center. “It protects some of our most cherished places, from the Chesapeake Bay and the Outer Banks to the South Carolina Lowcountry and Georgia barrier islands.”

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, the Georgia Republican with a home on Sea Island, said the coast — roughly 50 miles from any potential activity — would’ve readily survived any offshore drilling.

“Since President Obama took office, he has attempted to kill the coal industry, unilaterally regulate carbon emissions and use regulatory czars to impose his progressive climate agenda,” he said. “Americans want to see us explore our full energy potential, and they are tired of lofty plans that don’t actually produce results.”

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