WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama moved decisively Wednesday to eliminate a hard-fought federal ban on oil drilling off Florida's west coast, drawing mixed political reaction and outrage from environmentalists.
The announcement came amid a broader push for oil and natural gas exploration along the Atlantic coastline, from Delaware to Central Florida, as alternative energy sources and conservation methods are improved.
"The answer is not drilling everywhere all the time," Obama said, presaging Republican complaints that the proposal is too timid. "But the answer is not, also, for us to ignore that we are going to need vital energy sources to maintain our economic growth and our security."
Lifting the ban in the eastern Gulf of Mexico will require congressional approval and would keep oil rigs at least 125 miles off the Florida coast. That satisfied a key architect of the moratorium, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
"I've talked many times to (Interior Department) Secretary (Ken) Salazar and told him if they drilled too close to Florida's beaches they'd be risking the state's economy and the environment," Nelson said. "I believe this plan shows they heeded that concern."
In 2006, Nelson led the way on a compromise, nearly two years in the making, that opened 8.3 million acres in the eastern gulf and allowed exploration 125 miles south of the Panhandle but banned drilling within 234 miles of the Tampa Bay area through 2022.
Obama's proposal opens up 25 million acres in the gulf. Exact boundaries would depend on a review by the military, which uses the gulf for training.
The wider proposal also calls for drilling off Florida's Atlantic coast, but that would be years in the making, requiring extensive study and public comment.
Republican Gov. Charlie Crist and state CFO Alex Sink, the Democratic candidate for governor, both expressed openness toward the idea. "So long as we can do so in a way that protects our beautiful state, we should do it," Crist said.
Republicans in the Florida Legislature want to go even farther, with plans for drilling much closer to the coast — a move Sink opposes.
Future House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said he is encouraged by Obama's proposal but wants to pass another resolution urging Congress to lift the ban and emphasize that Florida "wants to be at the table."
The hard line still exists among some Democrats.
"Drilling for oil off of Florida's west coast beaches would be a serious threat to Florida's economy and jobs," said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.
And there are those in the middle.
Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, agrees with the need to produce our own oil but is concerned about infringing on the military. He said he is worried an oil spill would harm tourism.
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Antidrilling groups pledged to fight.
"This is a sad day for Florida," said Adam Rivera of Environment Florida.
Enid Sisskin of Gulf Coast Environmental Defense in Pensacola has been leading the fight against offshore drilling near the Panhandle since the 1980s. She contended the Obama plan is "the wrong direction for U.S. energy policy, given a worsening climate crisis caused by increased global emissions of carbon dioxide."
Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida said it would make it easier for state lawmakers to push for opening up near-shore waters to drilling: "It will erode our position in Tallahassee."
Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said, "The oil industry already has access to drilling on millions of acres of America's public lands and water."
But Salazar told reporters that the administration considers the 125-mile buffer in the eastern Gulf of Mexico sound environmental policy. Proponents say water currents would push any oil away from the coast, an assertion environmentalists dispute.
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Despite the clamor, Obama's move is not surprising. While on the campaign trail — in Florida no less — he relented under a constant "drill, baby, drill" mantra from Republicans and said he was open to some drilling. He has continued that direction since taking office.
The push Wednesday is widely interpreted as an attempt to get bipartisan support for climate and energy legislation just starting to take shape in the Senate. Obama has also courted Republicans and moderate Democrats by saying he wants to expand nuclear energy in the United States.
As for drilling, Obama acknowledged Wednesday's proposal would not do much to end foreign dependence. "We have less than 2 percent of the world's oil reserves; we consume more than 20 percent of the world's oil," he said, making the pitch for alternative energy sources.
It would also have minimal effect at the pump. Opening previously restricted areas to drilling would cut oil prices by less than 3 cents a gallon by 2030, which would have little effect on gasoline prices, according to Michael A. Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Additional drilling leases could bring additional revenue to Florida and other states, however, and soften the blow of future price spikes.
Many Republicans said it did not go far enough.
"It's long past time for this administration to stop delaying American energy production off all our shores and start listening to the American people who want an 'all of the above' strategy to produce more American energy and create more jobs," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
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Obama's overall plan modifies a ban that for more than 20 years has limited drilling along coastal areas other than the Gulf of Mexico. It allows new oil drilling off Virginia's shoreline and considers it for a large chunk of the Atlantic seaboard, 167 million acres in all.
"This is not a decision that I've made lightly," Obama said at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
At the same time, the president rejected some new drilling sites that had been planned in Alaska. And he left new drilling along the Pacific coast off limits.
The heavy lift will come when Congress returns from its spring recess later this month. Obama has already stirred backlash from some coastal lawmakers affected by his moves, but at least some Florida lawmakers appear willing to compromise.
Obama wants to get the energy and climate bill passed before midterm elections make it difficult to do anything controversial.
"I know that we can come together to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation that's going to foster new energy — new industries, create millions of new jobs, protect our planet, and help us become more energy independent," Obama said. "That's what we can do. That is what we must do."
Times staff writer Steve Nohlgren and Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.