Environmentalists called President Barack Obama's decision to open portions of the East Coast to oil and gas exploration a "wholesale assault" on the oceans, while some coastal residents and lawmakers applauded the idea of cheap energy and jobs that oil platforms off their beaches could bring.
Environmental groups from Maryland to Florida said Wednesday's decision would exact a high environmental cost while slaking only a sip's worth of the nation's huge thirst for energy.
"We're appalled that the president is unleashing a wholesale assault on the oceans," said Jacqueline Savitz of Oceana, an environmental group. "Expanding offshore drilling is the wrong move if the Obama administration is serious about improving energy security, creating lasting jobs and averting climate change."
Obama's plan modifies a moratorium 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.
Shrimpers welcomed the idea of filling up their tanks for less and pointed out that oil rigs haven't harmed their industry in the Gulf of Mexico. Many in the tourism industry were less enthused, worrying vacationers would shun their area if there were ever a spill.
Reaction among the region's political leaders was mixed. Some said it would help ease the nation's reliance on foreign reserves.
"The president's decision to allow energy exploration off Virginia's coast will mean thousands of new jobs, hundreds of millions in new state revenue and tens of billions of dollars in economic impact for the commonwealth," said Gov. Bob McDonnell in Virginia, which is first in line to begin drilling that wouldn't begin for at least five years.
To the north, the idea of expanded drilling was denounced by U.S. Sens. Benjamin Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, Maryland Democrats. The governors of the Carolinas also said they have reservations.
"Offshore drilling brings with it great concerns — from the potential of oil spills to the protection of our defense facilities located along the coast — for our national security. The coastal states that are on the front lines need to have to a say when it comes to decisions that have an impact far beyond one state's coastline," Mikulski said.
Many residents along the East Coast were ambivalent, even some who live in fishing villages or near beaches.
"If they found it, and it went to help the United States, the people of the United States, I'd be for it," said Tom Bell, 66, who lives in South Bowers, Del., a small fishing village on the shore of the Delaware Bay.
In Savannah, Ga., shrimp boat captain Hank Groover said he'd be grateful if more domestic drilling would lower fuel prices.
"They've been doing it in the Gulf of Mexico for years without any major catastrophes," Groover, 55, said. "There's hundreds of oil wells and a huge number of shrimp boats working down there, and they haven't had any problems."
Lower prices might not be the result, analysts said.
"Consumers aren't going to see any direct impact from this," said Michael A. Levi, director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations. "This is a small amount of oil relative to global markets."
Guy Caruso, former administrator of the U.S. Energy Information Administration, said models the agency ran during his tenure in the 2000s showed offshore drilling would have little effect on price, especially soon.
"And in the long term, it will be pretty moderate, because development comes on very slowly. It's not a sudden large new source of oil or gas," said Caruso, now an energy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Even Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the amounts of oil and gas available through offshore drilling are still minor compared to what the U.S. imports.
"This is not the panacea and it's not the answer to the energy issues that we face in this country," he said on a conference call.
As for shrimping, John Wallace, former president of the Georgia Shrimp Association, said oil rigs would be too far offshore to interfere with production. He speculated that some fishermen could get work during the offseason by running supplies to oil platforms.
Environmental groups said marine life would be harmed by drilling, and even seismic testing could harm the endangered right whale, which migrates from northern waters to birth in waters off Georgia.
"It's not just the risk of a catastrophic spill," said Marirose Pratt of the Southern Environmental Law Center. "Onshore refineries would have to be built and would require destroying coastal wetlands."
From the Delaware shore to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Atlantic coast beaches are a destination for many Northeast visitors. The vision of oil platforms, even beyond the horizon, did not sit well with tourism officials.
In South Carolina, tourism is an $18.4 billion business, with Myrtle Beach a big part of it.
"We don't believe placing oil rigs off the coast of South Carolina would be beneficial to the state and the best case scenario for oil royalties would not be close to the tax stream generated by coastal tourism," said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
In Virginia, McDonnell has found strong support for his push for drilling. The General Assembly backed two bills supporting it, and Virginia's two Democratic U.S. senators — Mark R. Warner and Jim Webb — have sided with the Republican governor.
Some coastal residents, such as Bill Dunleavy in Sullivans Island, S.C., simply don't want to look at hulking oil machinery off the coast.
"Being a sailor, and I'm out there sailing all the time, I hate to see oil rigs going up along the East Coast — not only for environmental issues but for navigational issues as well," said Dunleavy, 59. "I don't think anyone wants to sit looking at oil rigs. We have pristine beaches."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Russ Bynum in Savannah, Ga.; Fred Frommer in Washington: Bruce Smith in Charleston, S.C.; Randall Chase in Delaware; Dena Potter in Richmond, Va.
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