Environmental groups have expressed disappointment over the White House policy change on offshore drilling, while oil industry executives say they are cautiously welcoming the plan. From Miami, our correspondent reports on how the move is seen on both sides of the offshore drilling debate.
Environmental groups in Florida have been among the most vocal in opposing new offshore oil drilling operations in the United States. A peninsula with more than 1,000 beaches, Florida is a major tourist destination and stands to lose a great deal from an offshore oil accident.
Environmentalists warn of long-term consequences that Florida's coastal cities will suffer, if ocean levels rise because of climate change driven by the burning of oil and other fossil fuels.
To Enid Sisskin of Gulf Coast Environmental Defense in Florida, President Barack Obama's decision to permit new drilling in the Atlantic Ocean off the southern United States and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico as well as Alaska is disappointing.
"We should be out there coming up with alternatives that we can proud to be using," said Enid Sisskin. "And not digging a hole in the ground and trying to extract dirty petroleum products."
In announcing the plan, Mr. Obama stressed the measures he has taken to boost energy efficiency and stimulate clean energy technologies. He said new automobile mileage standards, for example, will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil. But the president said that offshore drilling is a necessary step before new technologies can come online.
"In the short term, as we transition to cleaner energy sources, we've still got to make some tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development in ways that protect communities and protect coastlines," said President Obama. "This is not a decision that I've made lightly."
Supporters of offshore drilling welcome the move, which reverses a decades-old U.S. ban on new off-shore drilling for oil and natural gas.
Dave Mica, a lobbyist with the Florida Petroleum Council, says it is a positive step in drafting a new energy policy.
"The administration now has laid at least some of its cards on the table," said Dave Mica. "[The oil] industry has been waiting for that."
Mica says it is unclear which of the newly-opened regions would be most attractive for oil companies because many are deep water sites that are costly to develop.
He says the petroleum industry is disappointed that more promising areas with proven offshore reserves remain off-limits.
"Included in this region is the Destin dome region in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, which has considerable amounts of natural gas and has already been explored," he said.
Supporters of the president's plan say that no matter where oil companies decide to drill, the risks to the environment are low thanks to advances in technology and industry practices. In Florida, the law requires new oil rigs to be at least 200 kilometers from land, limiting the dangers to coastal cities.
But environmental groups say distance does not guarantee safety.
Enid Sisskin of Gulf Coast Environmental Defense says offshore rigs report hundreds of oil spills every year.
"Just because we are not seeing them, does not mean they are not polluting or having an impact on the ocean environment," he said.
U.S. officials say the first new leases for offshore drilling could be granted within two years.