March 31, 2010 -- In a move that angered environmentalists, President Obama today said he is lifting bans on offshore drilling and oil and gas exploration off the Virginia coast, and is expanding lease sales for oil and gas exploration on the Atlantic seaboard.
"This is not a decision that I've made lightly," Obama said at Andrews Air Force base today. "But the bottom line is this: Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth, produce jobs and keep our businesses competitive, we're going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy."
The Obama administration's move to allow the lease sale to go forward for oil and gas exploration 50 miles off the Virginia coast marks the first sale of offshore oil and gas drilling rights in the Atlantic in more than two decades.
The Department of Interior will also allow seismic exploration for oil and gas in the Outer Continental Shelf from Delaware south to the tip of Florida, to assess the quantity and location of potential oil and gas resources. The agency will continue lease sales in the central and western Gulf of Mexico, and will open up two-thirds of the resources in this region should Congress lift the moratorium imposed upon it. The administration may also the eastern Gulf of Mexico, 150 miles west of the Florida coast, for possible drilling as well.
At the same time, the administration canceled a lease sale in Alaska's Bristol Bay because of environmental concerns but approved one in Alaska's Cook Inlet. Lease sales in Alaska's Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are suspended pending further scientific review.
All in all, more than 400 million acres of ocean may be opened for offshore drilling.
What that means is that sites off Virginia and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico could produce 230 million barrels of oil and 1.41 trillion cubic feet of natural gas by 2030. The areas the government is further studying contain up to 62 billion barrels of oil and up to 289 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Obama today said opening up these sites to oil and gas exploration is critical to U.S. energy security.
"We'll be guided not by political ideology but by scientific evidence," the president said.
In 2008, the United States imported 4.7 billion barrels of oil and while potential new reserves may help the United States reduce some dependency on foreign oil, it's unlikely the need for imports will completely be eliminated.
"The amount of oil or gas involved will take a number of years to develop and therefore will not have a significant impact on price," said Guy Caruso, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Environmental Groups Disappointed at Decision
Obama, responsing to criticism from environmental groups, argued that it was necessary to pursue a comprehensive energy strategy to make the United States more energy-independent.
"I want to emphasize 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," he said. "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."
This includes setting high, fuel-efficiency standards, the clean energy investments in the stimulus bill and the recent announcement of loan guarantees for new nuclear reactions.
"I would say that this comprehensive approach is a lot less 'Drill, baby, drill,' and more drill where it's responsible, promote efficiency, invest in clean energy, and create jobs of the future," White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton told reporters. "I know that doesn't fit on a T-shirt quite as well, but that's a lot more about what President Obama thinks is the right direction for this country."
Environmental groups were swift in their reply.
"We're very disappointed to see important areas like the Arctic coast and the Mid and South Atlantic stay open to oil drilling," said Michael Brune, executive director of the environmental group Sierra Club. "Drilling our coasts will doing nothing to lower gas prices or create energy independence. It will only jeopardize beaches, marine life and coastal tourist economies, all so the oil industry can make a short-term profit."
Republican leaders voiced approval -- but quickly said the administration needs to do more.
"Senate Republicans have long supported efforts to find more American energy, and use less; we believe we must do both," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement. "Today's announcement is a step in the right direction, but a small one that leaves enormous amounts of American energy off limits. And the proof of the administration's announcement will be in the implementation."
House Minority Leader John Boehner, D-Ohio, joined in: "Opening up areas off the Virginia coast to offshore production is a positive step, but keeping the Pacific Coast and Alaska, as well as the most promising resources off the Gulf of Mexico, under lock and key makes no sense at a time when gasoline prices are rising and Americans are asking 'Where are the jobs?'"
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose chants of "drill, baby, drill" became somewhat of a mantra during the 2008 presidential campaign, sided with Boehner.
"Rep.Boehner spot-on Obama goal=cram thru job-killing, energy-depleting, burdensome Cap & Tax scheme on heels of Obama's new'pro-drilling'msg," Palin wrote on Twitter.com today.
Industry groups hailed the president's announcement, albeit with cautious optimism.
"The announcement by President Obama and [Interior] Secretary Salazar is a positive development," American Petroleum Institute's president and chief executive Jack Gerard said in a statement. "We look forward to reviewing the details of the proposal, and we stand ready to work with them to make this a reality."
Most Americans support increased offshore drilling. A Pew poll last month found that nearly two-third of Americans, about 63 percent, favored more offshore drilling for oil and gas. At the same time, 78 percent also supported increased funding for alternative energy.
Candidate Obama's Position on Offshore Drilling
The president has reversed course several times on his offshore drilling policy. As a presidential candidate, Obama shifted his rhetoric several times on whether he would lift the oil and gas exploration suspensions in certain parts of the country.
Soon after taking office, Obama reversed orders issued by the Bush administration in its final months that would have expanded offshore drilling. The Obama administration announced in January 2009 that it would withdraw oil and gas leases on 103,225 acres that were offered on 77 parcels of public land for drilling near national parks in Utah.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar also scrapped leases for oil-shale development on federal land in Colorado and Wyoming, and rejected a Bush plan to open areas off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to oil drilling.
But under scrutiny from lawmakers and environmental and industry groups, the Obama administration undertook a policy review last year to figure out how the country's energy supply could be diversified. And the Department of Interior still went ahead with auctions of drilling sites in the Gulf of Mexico.
In June 2008, then-Sen. Obama told reporters in Jacksonville, Fla., "When I'm president, I intend to keep in place the moratorium here in Florida and around the country that prevents oil companies from drilling off Florida's coasts. That's how we can protect our coastline and still make the investments that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and bring down gas prices for good."
In July 2008, he said, of lifting moratoriums on offshore drilling, that "if there were real evidence that these steps would actually provide real, immediate relief at the pump and advance the long-term goal of energy independence, of course I'd be open to them. But so far there isn't."
But his Republican opponents -- Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and perhaps even more so, his running mate, then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, with her "drill, baby, drill" chant -- used the issue to paint Obama as a stubborn ideologue.
But by August, then-Sen. Obama signaled that he was willing to support legislation that included offshore drilling as part of a bipartisan compromise.
"What I don't want is for the best to be the enemy of the good," he said at the time. "If we can come up with a genuine bipartisan compromise, in which I have to accept some things I don't like and the Democrats have to accept some things they don't like, when it's actually moving us in the direction of energy independence, I'm open to that. What I will not do is support a plan that suggests that drilling is the answer to our energy problems."
By September 2008, Obama was saying an energy strategy meant increasing domestic production and off-shore drilling.
In his State of the Union address, he said a sound energy policy "means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development."
The president today also announced that in order to save taxpayer dollars, the administration is doubling the number of hybrid vehicles in the federal fleet of cars as they reduce the number of cars and trucks used by the government overall.
On Thursday, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency will sign the final rule establishing new requirements for vehicles' fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions.
ABC News' Sunlen Miller contributed to this report.