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Green Groups, Big Oil Conflicted Over Obama Offshore Drilling Switch

President Barack Obama’s decision to open up certain coastal areas for drilling drew expressions of dismay Wednesday from some of the Democrats’ traditional allies in the environmental community.

At the same time, some in the oil industry, which has a long record of backing Republicans, offered a qualified endorsement to the Democratic president for taking limited steps to increase domestic exploration.

Obama announced that his administration would begin opening up areas along the south coast of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico for offshore drilling. The new plan would also allow continued drilling in the North Slope of Alaska but bar exploration elsewhere off the coast of the state, including Bristol Bay.

Environmental groups argued the new policy would not only endanger wildlife but also would not substantially reduce the price of oil.

“Drilling for oil and gas is a dirty and dangerous business,” said Anna Aurilio, director of the Washington, D.C., office of Environment America. “Opening much of the Atlantic coast to drilling will threaten the last remaining northern right whales, endangered sea turtles and vibrant tourism economies from Delaware to Florida.”

Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program for the liberal advocacy group Public Citizen, questioned how much the new initiative would affect the pocketbooks of most Americans. He cited a Department of Energy study that said keeping the offshore drilling moratorium in place would only result in gas prices being three cents higher than if the ban is lifted.

“While consumers still cringe remembering gas prices exceeding $4 a gallon, the three cents saved if drilling is permitted would hardly justify the damage to our country’s coasts and the pollution accompanying drilling,” he said.

But energy industry officials said allowing more domestic drilling would bolster the domestic economy.

“Exploring for and developing our nation’s offshore resources could help generate more than a trillion dollars in revenues and create thousands of jobs to add to the already 9.2 million jobs supported by today’s oil and natural gas industry,” Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s main lobbying group in Washington, said in a statement.

Industry officials qualified their support by noting that drilling is still years away.

T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oil and gas executive, called Obama’s move “an important step in achieving true energy reform.” But Pickens, who has launched a crusade for energy independence, warned that the U.S. was still 10 years away from being able to use the reserve.

The Independent Petroleum Association of America welcomed the White House plan but said “it is also important to remember that offshore energy development will not happen overnight.” The five-year plan overseen by the Minerals Management Service will allow for extensive public comments as well as approval by the secretary of the Interior, the IPAA noted in its release.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave a lukewarm response to the plan, saying that while it would open up some potential energy reserves, it still left others untouched.

“The plan released today still leaves billions of barrels of American oil and significant reserves of natural gas under lock and key, including some of the most productive areas of exploration,” said Karen Harbert, president of the chamber’s Institute for 21st Century Energy.

There has been tremendous pressure from oil companies on Congress and the White House to open up more areas for drilling. Companies and associations involved in oil and gas drilling, producing, refining and exploration spent more than $145 million on federal lobbying in 2009, according to a CQ MoneyLine analysis of lobbying disclosure reports submitted to Congress.

By contrast, groups that lobbied on environmental and farm issues spent about $23 million on lobbying in 2009, according to CQ MoneyLine. Environment America spent $299,200 on lobbying and the Sierra Club reported $480,000 on federal lobbying last year.

On Wednesday, the Sierra Club issued a statement opposing the president’s decision to open up coastal areas to drilling.

But spokesman Josh Dorner said the White House’s announcement did not catch the environmental group off guard because Obama had signaled his openness to drilling at the end of his 2008 presidential campaign.

“This is disappointing but not surprising,” he said.

Others said the president’s policy will overall be environmentally beneficial because it still protects the West Coast and Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the site of a large salmon fishery.

“They are protecting places that previously were vulnerable,” said Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a liberal advocacy group.

Weiss also said Obama’s action should prod some Republicans into supporting more comprehensive climate change legislation supported by environmentalists since the president has now shown his willingness to support a menu of items to make the country more energy independent.

He said that if Republicans do not sign off on the legislation, it would show they are beholden to Big Oil, which has opposed the climate change measure.

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