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Obama announces offshore drilling plan

From NBC's Ali Weinberg

President Obama today announced that he would be expanding oil and natural gas drilling to areas off the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico -- a decision that represents his evolution on the subject since it first arose during the 2008 presidential general election.

"This is not a decision that I've made lightly," Obama said, while speaking to a group of military personnel and energy officials at Andrews Air Force Base late this morning. "But the bottom line is this: Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth, produce jobs, and keep our businesses competitive, we're going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy."

The plan, which needs congressional approval to be implemented, would permit drilling off the coast of Virginia, as well as end a moratorium on drilling 125 miles from Florida's west coast. Certain areas of Alaska would also be open to drilling, although the coast of Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska would remain off limits.

The proposal announced today follows two developments during President George W. Bush's administration. In July 2008, Bush lifted an executive ban on offshore drilling put in place by his father, George H.W. Bush. Months later, Congress allowed a moratorium on offshore drilling to expire. According to the White House, today's only existing moratorium was on Florida's west coast, which Obama today proposed be lifted.

Obama's announcement, his first major declaration on offshore drilling since becoming president, represents a reveral from his remarks on the campaign trail, when he drew a stark division between his views on offshore drilling and those of his opponent, Sen. John McCain, whose views were summed up by the oft-repeated "Drill, baby drill" chant that runningmate Sarah Palin frequently invoked.

At a press conference in Jacksonville, Florida during the general election race, then-candidate Obama said offshore drilling made "absolutely no sense," drawing a clear line between himself and his Republican opponent.

But later during the presidential campaign, Obama said that he would consider offshore drilling as part of a more comprehensive approach to energy production. And during his State of the Union address last January, he said: "To create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development."

Today, Obama emphasized that the plan was borne of economic necessity, not political expediency, while also addressing the pushback the plan was likely to receive from both supporters and opponents of offshore drilling.

"We'll be guided not by political ideology, but by scientific evidence," he said. "Ultimately, we need to move beyond the tired debates between right and left, between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure all and those who would claim it has no place," he added.

Obama's plan drew immediate criticism from both Republicans and environmentalists. House Minority Leader John Boehner issued a press release even before Obama officially made his remarks on the plan, saying the plan does not go far enough. "Keeping the Pacific Coast and Alaska, as well as the most promising resources of the Gulf of Mexico, under lock and key makes no sense at a time when gasoline prices are rising and Americans are asking 'Where are the jobs?'" Boehner said in the statement.

Meanwhile, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said his group was "very disappointed" with Obama's announcement. "There's no reason to drill our coasts. We can achieve real energy independence and economic vitality by investing in clean energy like wind and solar and efficiency."