(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

The Obama administration on Tuesday outlined a politically fraught plan for allowing oil and gas drilling in U.S. coastal waters, announcing steps to open parts of the southeastern U.S. coastline for oil leasing while imposing new restrictions on environmentally fragile waters off Alaska’s North Slope.

The proposals, intended to set a course for coastal energy development into the next decade, sought to strike a balance between soaring demand for energy production and White House priorities to protect sensitive environments, particularly in the Arctic. But the plans also set the stage for new clashes with Republican lawmakers over U.S. energy policies, while also drawing warnings from environmentalists about the increased risk of coastal oil spills.

The draft plans could potentially lead to the appearance of drilling platforms off the Atlantic coast from Virginia to Georgia, in a region where state governments have traditionally backed expanded oil development offshore. But the administration also sought to block access to some oil-rich areas of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska’s North Slope to protect what White House officials described as a pristine and particularly fragile Arctic ecosystem.

The new proposal, coming just two days after the president announced he would propose designating most of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, represents a concerted push by the White House to reframe the debate over domestic energy exploration and establish future ground rules for the Arctic. In June the United States will take over as chair of the Arctic Council, an international body that coordinates policy for the nations whose borders define the region, and the administration plans to use the post to push for greater environmental action there.


A rig and supply vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana. (AP/Gerald Herbert)

The unprecedented decision to take Arctic areas previously open to drilling off the table could have implications beyond Alaska, potentially affecting future leasing decisions in the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico.

“This is a balanced proposal that would make available nearly 80 percent of the undiscovered technically recoverable resources, while protecting areas that are simply too special to develop,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said at a news conference called to unveil the plan.

The leasing proposals, to be finalized later this year after a public comment period, are part of congressionally¬mandated five-year plan that sets the boundaries for oil development in federal waters through the year 2022. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management could decide to narrow–but not expand–the proposed leasing area before it is finalized.

The draft plan envisions a single future oil lease that would cover a portion of middle and southern Atlantic coast, including offshore areas of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina and Georgia. Jewell characterized the plan as “early-stage,” and said any lease would require a 50-mile buffer to limit damage to coastal areas from a potential spill. Interior officials were “looking to build up our understanding of resource potential, as well as risks to the environment and other uses,” Jewell said.

The region currently has no oil leases in federal waters. The Obama administration proposed one lease off coastal Virginia in 2010 but canceled the plan amid the political fallout over the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that spring.

The plan would allow 10 sales in the heavily developed Gulf of Mexico, including one in the eastern zone near Florida. But it would continue a long-held policy of preventing drilling along the Pacific. In Alaska, the administration’s proposal would allow one lease each in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, and another in the Cook Inlet, in South-Central Alaska.

But portions of the two seas would be blocked from future drilling, under a directive issued by President Obama under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. Jewell described the restricted areas as “an incredibly unique environment” that required a “balanced and careful approach to development.”


Walruses in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska. (AP/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Oil industry officials attacked the plan before the details were publicly announced, accusing the Obama administration of keeping too much of country’s oil reserves locked away. Nearly 90 percent of federally owned coastal waters are currently off-limits for drilling.

“At this early stage, it would be premature and irresponsible to leave out of the draft program any area that holds the potential for significant discoveries of oil and natural gas,” said Erik Milito, director of offshore and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade association for the oil and gas industry.

He said restrictions on leasing could undercut U.S. dominance in global energy markets and prevent the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

The plan was unveiled two days after the White House announced plans to protect some 12 million acres of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, placing it off-limits to oil and gas development.

The proposed restrictions drew sharp rebukes from Congressional Republicans, and particularly from Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), who now chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Anticipating the new restrictions on offshore drilling, Murkowski described the Obama administration’s energy policy on Monday as a “one, two, three kick to the gut of Alaska’s economy.”

“We will not tolerate it,” Murkowski said at a joint news conference with fellow Alaska delegation members Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young, both Republicans. “We will do everything we can to push back against an administration that has taken a look at Alaska and decided it’s a ‘nice little snow globe up there and we’re going to keep it that way.’ That’s not how you treat a state.”

Conservation groups saw the issue differently. Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the president’s proposal to drill in the Atlantic “takes us in exactly the wrong direction” by exposing the Eastern Seaboard to the hazards of drilling.

“It would put our oceans, beaches, wetlands and all they support at grave and needless risk, imperil coastal communities and economies, and anchor our future to the dirty fossil fuels of the past,” Lehner said.

Virginia senators Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, released a joint statement Tuesday calling the proposal a “significant step…that should result in the safe, responsible development of energy resources off the Virginia and mid-Atlantic coasts.

The senators said leasing should move forward only after “appropriate environmental reviews and opportunities for public hearings.” They also complained that Virginia and other Atlantic coast states are not allowed to share revenue from offshore energy development.

“We will continue to push for legislation to allow Virginia to have the same revenue-sharing system currently applied to Gulf Coast states,” their statement said.

Staff writers Darryl Fears and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

[RELATED: Obama administration to propose new wilderness protections in Arctic refuge]