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Atlantic, eastern Gulf closed to offshore drilling till 2017

WASHINGTON — The Atlantic Coast and the eastern Gulf of Mexico will remain closed to offshore oil and gas drilling until at least 2017, in what's considered a major recalibration of the nation's offshore drilling priorities after last spring's catastrophic BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday his department had "raised the bar in the drilling and production stages'' since the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion. As the government continues to develop new, stricter safety and environmental standards, Salazar said, the administration will focus offshore drilling activity on areas that already are leased for drilling, rather than offer up new waters for exploration.

"It is consistent with developing our nation's energy resources in the right ways and the right places," Salazar said.

The revisions mean that the area in the eastern Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida now under a congressional moratorium — as well as the Atlantic seaboard — remains closed to development through 2017, Salazar sad.

The western and central Gulf will continue to be considered for lease sales. The Cook Inlet and the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the Arctic also will be studied, but there are no planned lease sales there.

The Obama administration will continue to review the only pending project in Alaska's Beaufort Sea, and it could proceed, but only after a re-evaluation of the safety procedures and environmental consequences, including spill response in the Arctic. Shell Oil's planned exploratory wells in the shallow water Arctic could go forward after a review of a proposed drilling plan but only "with utmost caution," Salazar said.

Salazar said he recognized that "cautious, limited exploratory activities can help develop critical information about the Arctic and its resources," but he added that any exploratory activities in the region "must be conducted safely and with strong oversight."

Wednesday's announcement reverses much of the Obama administration's original offshore-drilling schedule, which was announced last spring just weeks before the Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 people and fouled the Gulf of Mexico.

The original plan, seen as a concession to persuade recalcitrant oil-state lawmakers to consider climate change legislation, would have allowed new drilling off Virginia's shoreline and portions of the Atlantic seaboard. It also could have opened the door to exploration in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, off Florida's coastline. At the time, the White House also announced that it supported development of some oil and gas leases in Arctic waters off Alaska's coast but that it wouldn't allow drilling in the federal waters near Bristol Bay's valuable fisheries.

Salazar acknowledged Wednesday that the revised plan is a concession to what the government learned this summer in addressing the weaknesses of its own oversight of the conditions that led up to the Gulf spill and response itself.

"As a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill we learned a number of lessons, most importantly that we need to proceed with caution and focus on creating a more stringent regulatory regime," 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."

Gov. Beverly Perdue of North Carolina said the decision bought her state time. Perdue, a Democrat, has been open to the possibility of drilling.

"If a resource is tapped off North Carolina's coast, the governor wants to make sure it's done safely, with an eye toward protecting our natural resources and our fishing resources, and that there is some ability to share revenue," said Perdue's spokeswoman, Chrissy Pearson. "And if the ban is in place, that gives us more time to deal with those issues."

Many environmental groups applauded the administration's new, cautious approach to opening new territory to exploration, but said they remained concerned about what would happen in the Arctic.

Vikki Spruill of the Ocean Conservancy called on the Interior Department to carefully apply the lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon to any pending drilling plans in the Arctic.

"The Arctic is the next big test for the administration," Spruill said. "Too little is known about the impacts offshore drilling would have on the region's unique ecosystem, and response capacity remains almost nonexistent. The BP disaster has demonstrated the enormous cost of not doing our scientific homework before we drill, so we are encouraged that the administration has stressed the importance of basing Arctic decisions on sound science."

Others, including the Center for Biological Diversity, said they thought the administration should extend an offshore ban to the Arctic. The center was among the administration's biggest critics after the Gulf spill, and has fought to extend additional endangered-species protections to polar bears.

"While protecting the fragile coasts of Florida and the Atlantic is important, there is no excuse for continuing to consider drilling in polar bear critical habitat off the coast of Alaska," said Brendan Cummings, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. "If the risk of an oil spill is too great for Florida, it is also certainly too great for Alaska."

Yet the move is a clear victory for Florida, which saw the effects of the Gulf oil spill without it even happening within its waters, said the state's Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat.

"Some of us have been fighting to keep oil rigs away from Florida for more than three decades now," he said. "As I've said — and long before the BP spill — just one accident could ruin Florida's tourism economy and our unique environment, not to mention the Everglades."

(Barbara Barrett and Lesley Clark contributed to this report.)MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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