The Ecology President?  Here’s Some More “Change you can Believe In”

Luke Sharrett/The New York Times: President Obama, with an F-18 “Green Hornet” that will run partly on bio fuel, during his speech on energy security on Wednesday at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

By JOHN M. BRODER Published: March 31, 2010 WASHINGTON

President Obama’s proposal to open vast expanses of American coastlines to oil and natural gas drilling drew criticism from both sides in the drilling debate.

The plan, which Mr. Obama said would balance the need to produce more domestic energy while protecting natural resources, would allow drilling along the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska. It would end a longstanding moratorium on exploration from the northern tip of Delaware to the central coast of Florida, covering 167 million acres of ocean.

“Drilling our coasts will doing nothing to lower gas prices or create energy independence,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. It will only jeopardize beaches, marine life, and coastal tourist economies, all so the oil industry can make a short-term profit.”

On the other hand, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called Mr. Obama’s proposal “a step in the right direction, but a small one that leaves enormous amounts of American energy off limits.”

Mr. McConnell also sought proof that the drilling would ultimately be permitted. “Will the administration actually take concrete steps to finish the studies, approve the necessary permits, and open these areas for production?” he said in a statement. “Will they stand by as their allies act to delay the implementation in the courts?”

House Republican Leader John Boehner also criticized the plan for keeping the vast majority of America’s offshore energy resources off limits at a time when, the Ohio representative said, Americans want an “all of the above” strategy for promoting American energy production and creating American jobs.

Mr. Obama, speaking at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, anticipated the reaction and tried to blunt the criticism.

“Ultimately, we need to move beyond the tired debates of the left and the right, between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure all and those who would claim it has no place,” he said. “Because this issue is just too important to allow our progress to languish while we fight the same old battles over and over again.”

While Mr. Obama has staked out middle ground on other environmental matters — supporting nuclear power, for example — the sheer breadth of the offshore drilling decision took some of his supporters aback.

“We’re appalled that the president is unleashing a wholesale assault on the oceans,” Jacqueline Savitz of the environmental group Oceana said on Wednesday. “Expanding offshore drilling is the wrong move if the Obama administration is serious about improving energy security, creating lasting jobs and averting climate change.”

And it is no sure thing that it will win support for a climate bill from undecided senators close to the oil industry, like Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, or Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana.

Under the plan, the coastline from New Jersey northward would remain closed to all oil and gas activity. So would the Pacific Coast, from Mexico to the Canadian border.

The environmentally sensitive Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska would be protected and no drilling would be allowed under the plan, officials said. But large tracts in the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska — nearly 130 million acres — would be eligible for exploration and drilling after extensive studies.

To critics who branded the decision both unnecessary and a threat to the environment, Mr. Obama said in his remarks: “There will be those who strongly disagree with this decision, including those who say we should not open any new areas to drilling, but what I want to emphasize is that this announcement is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy. And the only way this transition will succeed is if it strengthens our economy in the short term and long term. To fail to recognize this reality would be a mistake.”

Mr. Obama also tried to answer oil industry officials and Republicans in Congress who would claim that the president did not go far enough.

“They’d deny the fact that with less than 2 percent of oil reserves, but more than 20 percent of world consumption, drilling alone cannot come close to meeting our long-term energy needs,” he said, “and that for the sake of the planet and our energy independence, we need to begin the transition to cleaner fuels now.”

The Senate is expected to take up a climate bill in the next few weeks — the last chance to enact such legislation before midterm election concerns take over.

The proposal is also intended to generate revenue from the sale of offshore leases and help win political support for comprehensive energy and climate legislation. Mr. Obama and his allies in the Senate have already made significant concessions on coal and nuclear power to try to win votes from Republicans and moderate Democrats. The new plan now grants one of the biggest items on the oil industry’s wish list — access to vast areas of the Outer Continental Shelf for drilling.