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Barack Obama Reverses Campaign Promise and Approves Offshore Drilling

President allows oil and gas exploration off several coastal areas to horsetrade with Republicans over climate change bills

Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington

Barack Obama announces offshore drilling plans at a naval base in, Maryland. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Barack Obama took the
Republican slogan "drill, baby, drill" as his own today, opening up over
500,000 square miles of US coastal waters to oil and gas exploitation for the first time in over
20 years.

The move, a reversal of Obama's early campaign promise
to retain a ban on offshore exploration, appeared aimed at winning support from Republicans in
Congress for new laws to tackle global warming. Sarah Palin's "Drill, baby, drill" slogan was a prominent
battle cry in the 2008 elections.

The areas opened up are off the
Atlantic coast, the northern coast of Alaska and in the eastern Gulf of
Mexico. However, in a concession to his environmentalist base, Obama did
retain protection for Alaska's Bristol Bay, the single largest source
of seafood in America and home to endangered species of whale. The
Pacific Coast from Mexico to Canada is also off-limits.

Obama said
the decision to allow oil rigs off the Atlantic coast was a painful
one, but that it would help reduce US dependence on imported oil.

is not a decision that I've made lightly," the president said. "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."

said the administration would take steps to protect the environment and
areas important to tourism off the Atlantic, as well as sensitive areas
in the Arctic, and added: "Drilling alone cannot come close to meeting
our long-term energy needs, and for the sake of the planet and our
energy independence, we need to begin the transition to cleaner fuels

Interior department officials said the areas opened up today
are thought to contain the equivalent of three years' annual US useage
of recoverable oil and two years' worth of natural gas.

Under the
proposals, a vast swath of Atlantic coast from northern Delaware to
central Florida, including about 167m acres of ocean, would be open to
drilling. An additional 130m acres of ocean in the Chukchi and Beaufort
seas north of Alaska could also open up for drilling following
environmental assessment studies. About two-thirds of the eastern Gulf
of Mexico would be open for exploration though the plan would bar rigs
within 125 miles of the Florida coast.

The state of
Virginia could see drilling within 50 miles of the coast, and could
issue its first licences as early as next year. However, actual drilling
would probably not get underway for years. Drilling would be off-limits
throughout the US Pacific coast. Bristol Bay in south-western Alaska
would also be off the table until 2017.

Today's speech was widely
seen as an attempt by Obama to use last week's epic victory on health
reform as a springboard for other items on his agenda. He combined the
announcement with a renewed appeal to Democrats and Republicans in
Congress to pass climate change legislation. The laws would be a huge step
forward towards a global deal but has encountered fierce domestic

A small group of Democrats and Republicans are
expected to produce proposals to cut the US's mammoth greenhouse gas
emissions, in the coming weeks. But the proposals are unlikely to go as
far as environmentalists would like.

The interior secretary, Ken
Salazar, made a significant declaration today, saying the administration
had renounced the concept of carbon cap and trade. This system, seen by
many as efficient and effective, sets a gradually reducing limit to
emissions and then allows polluters to buy and sell permits to emit
greenhouse gases, but opponents argue it would damage the economy. "The
term cap and trade is not in the lexicon anymore," Salazar told CNBC

The go-ahead for drilling is also a bitter
disappointment for environmentalists and Democrats. That could make it
even more difficult to stitch together a compromise proposal on climate
change in the Senate. Last week, 10 Senators from coastal states,
including those now opened up for drilling, issued a letter expressing
concern that offshore exploration would hurt fishing and tourism

Maryland's Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, a supporter
of Obama's climate agenda, said: "We know spills happen with offshore
drilling. It happens even with the most responsible drilling."
Greenpeace saw the announcement as a betrayal of Obama's campaign
promise, with director Phil Radford saying: "This act furthers America's
addiction to oil." Oceana called it a "wholesale assault" on the seas.

Cummings, senior counsel at the Centre for Biological Diversity, said:
"Today's announcement is unfortunately all too typical of what we have
seen so far from President Obama - promises of change, a year of
'deliberation,' and ultimately, adoption of flawed and outdated Bush
policies as his own."

The disappointment could lift on Thursday,
as Obama said his administration would then finalise more rigorous fuel
economy standards for cars and trucks. The White House will also buy
5,000 new hybrid vehicles for the federal fleet.

Today's drilling
decision further consolidates Obama's position in the middle ground
between industry and environmentalists. Environmentalists have been
disappointed with the president's decisions to restrict - but not ban
outright - the highly destructive practice of blowing up mountaintops to mine thin seams of coal.

Obama indicated in his state of the union address that he
was ready to offer two key concessions to Republicans - lifting the ban
on offshore drilling and supporting new nuclear power plants - to try to
gain support for climate change and energy legislation in Congress.

took the first step last month, spurring the first construction of new nuclear plants
since the Three Mile Island leak 30 years ago, by announcing $18bn in
loan guarantees for two new nuclear reactors.

As a
presidential candidate, Obama had repeatedly attacked his opponent, John
McCain, for suggesting drilling would lower gas prices, arguing that it
would take several years and billions in investment before those areas
became productive. But as the summer of 2008 wore on with prices spiking
at the pump, Obama along with other Democrats began moderating their
opposition to offshore drilling.

Democrats in Congress did not
renew an annual ban on offshore drilling, and Obama began reversing his

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