President Barack Obama took the responsible course Wednesday by shelving his plan to vastly expand oil and gas drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The gulf region will need years to recover from BP's oil rig explosion in April, and it only makes sense to limit the risks of offshore drilling in the wake of a disaster whose full impact has yet to be measured.
Obama had called for opening 25 million acres in the eastern gulf to drilling only weeks before the BP-leased rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, spilling an estimated 172 million gallons of oil. In announcing the change in policy, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the monthslong job of capping the well made clear that neither the industry nor the government was prepared to anticipate such a disaster or respond to one. The policy announced Wednesday maintains a 2006 congressional deal that keeps drilling 234 miles from Tampa Bay and 125 miles south of the Panhandle through 2022. The president says he won't try to change that in the next seven years. The 2006 compromise also opened more than 8 million acres farther out in the eastern gulf to exploration, and that area is not affected by Obama's new policy.
The administration never should have proposed opening the eastern gulf — there are some 29 million acres in the western and central gulf under lease and open for exploration today. But at least the administration has learned a lesson.
Florida's newly elected Republican leadership should realize what the Obama administration came to realize: Drilling is too risky for states whose economies rely on pristine beaches, tourism and a clean and healthy ecosystem. Republicans in the Legislature should permanently end their talk of allowing oil rigs in state waters, but they still don't get it. State Senate President Mike Haridopolos foolishly called Obama's decision "another job-killing policy.'' It is worth remembering that the ban on drilling in the eastern gulf that the administration salvaged Wednesday still did not prevent BP's oil from fouling some of Florida's most popular beaches and harming tourism for miles along the oil-free coast, including in Pinellas County. At least the Obama administration now has moved to preserve the status quo.