The Obama administration has pulled back its proposal to allow oil and gas drilling off the Atlantic coast, relieving Maryland politicians and environmental advocates who had lobbied against it but frustrating energy companies and leaders in Virginia and other states who had visions of a coastal economic boom.
Just over a year ago, the administration had proposed the leasing of tracts at least 50 miles offshore from Virginia to Georgia to oil and gas companies for drilling starting in 2021 or later. On Tuesday, the administration reversed course after hearing from thousands of people in coastal communities from Florida to New England who said now is not the time to launch Atlantic drilling, said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.
Supporters and critics alike viewed the reversal as part of a larger Obama administration effort to build a legacy addressing climate change. Both of Maryland's U.S. senators and state Attorney General Brian E. Frosh praised the decision. Each had expressed fears of an event such as the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and had publicly urged the administration to reverse course on Atlantic drilling.
"Oil spills and the damage associated with seismic exploration do not respect state boundaries, making drilling anywhere on the Atlantic Coast a threat everywhere on the Atlantic Coast," Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said in a statement.
Opponents argued that the country is missing an opportunity to build energy independence and create jobs. Republican governors in North Carolina and South Carolina support offshore drilling, as do the governor of Virginia and the state's two senators, all Democrats.
"This is a short-sighted political decision of an administration influenced by the radical and extreme minority devoted to keeping fossil fuels in the ground," said Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents the offshore energy industry. "The removal is not based upon science or good energy policy, and will certainly inhibit the economic opportunities and energy security of our country."
As it abandons drilling in the Atlantic, the Department of the Interior is moving forward with plans to lease 10 drilling sites in the Gulf of Mexico and three off the Alaska coast. The drilling plan announced Tuesday covers potential lease sales from 2017 to 2022.
Jewell called the plan a "balanced proposal that protects sensitive resources and supports safe and responsible development of the nation's domestic energy resources to create jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil."
She said officials opted to focus offshore drilling efforts in areas with the largest stores of oil and gas and with established industry interest and infrastructure.
In making their decision, she said officials took into account more than 1 million comments from stakeholders and members of the public.
Many of those came from Maryland. Cardin, Frosh and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and former Gov. Martin O'Malley, all Democrats, were among those who spoke out against Atlantic drilling and its potential impact on Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay. Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, was among 33 members of the House of Representatives who wrote to Jewell.
Frosh, who told the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management last year that drilling would threaten "irreplaceable natural resources," praised President Barack Obama on Tuesday for a "terrific decision."
"Our experience in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere around the country, and around the world, shows just what happens when oil drilling goes wrong," Frosh said. "There is simply no reason to play Russian roulette with the Chesapeake Bay or with vulnerable Atlantic Coast shoreline."
Representatives for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan did not respond to requests for comment.
Environmentalists expressed relief. Though drilling was not proposed off Maryland's coast, Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said anything that keeps fossil fuel in the ground helps prevent more drastic sea level rise that threatens the state's 3,000 miles of tidal coastline. The conservation group Oceana called the decision a victory for coastal communities that rely on tourism and the seafood industry.
Supporters of exploring the Atlantic Ocean for oil and gas reserves saw an economic loss.
The Department of the Interior estimates that there are 3.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil on the outer continental shelf and 31.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, but energy industry experts say the Atlantic reserves might be far greater.
"By not taking the long-term view, the administration sells U.S. consumers short," Luthi said. "Instead, they have determined they are content to let the rest of the world lead in Atlantic offshore oil and natural gas development. This is the wrong direction in efforts to continue the U.S. march toward energy independence."
Jack Gerard, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, the nation's largest oil and gas lobbying group, said the plan would increase energy costs for Americans and close the door for years to efforts to create jobs and boost energy security.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said the Obama administration put a "radical climate legacy" above the desires of a bipartisan and multistate coalition to explore domestic energy potential.
"This is a lost opportunity for new jobs and economic growth in these coastal states, not to mention much-needed revenues for the federal treasury," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.