WASHINGTON - President Obama swept away a long-standing moratorium on offshore drilling yesterday, wading into one of the most controversial issues in the country's energy debate.
Sharing the stage with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Mr. Obama announced that his administration would open the Arctic coast, eastern Gulf of Mexico, and much of the Atlantic coast to drilling, a gesture that pleased oil companies and immediately divided environmental groups, some of which bitterly condemned the move.
For an administration that has been battered by the energy industry for much of the last year, the decision established new credibility, opening up waters off the Atlantic coast that have been off-limits for more than two decades.
At the same time, the administration placed the entire West Coast from Washington state to California off limits, protected Alaska's Bristol Bay, and canceled some lease sales off Alas-ka's north coast. Those are areas that may contain some of the country's largest undiscovered reserves, industry experts say.
It was a compromise governed by the tough choices the country now faces, Mr. Obama said, and he urged both sides in an entrenched debate to give a little.
"We need to move beyond the tired debates of the left and the right, between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure-all and those who would claim it has no place," Mr. Obama said.
Republicans embraced the move, but hardly enthusiastically.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called it, "A step in the right direction, but a small one." Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the House minority leader, said it "continues to defy the will of the American people."
While some environmental groups praised the protections to areas like Bristol Bay and the California coastline, Sierra Club President Michael Brune ripped it as an industry give-away.
"We don't need to hand over our last protected pristine coastal areas just so oil companies can break more profit records," he said.
Under the new plan, the Atlantic coast north of Delaware would remain off limits, but the approach is still likely to draw the ire of many Atlantic coast governors south of that line, who fear drilling will hurt tourism and fishing.
The Atlantic coast section of the plan alone would open up to exploration more than 160 million acres of ocean that had been off limits for at least 15 years.
That drilling moratorium was lifted by President George W. Bush in 2007, but Mr. Salazar put Republican plans to allow offshore drilling on hold pending further review. Yesterday's announcement is effectively the result of that process, which included some 500,000 public comments gathered since the middle of last year.
"No single energy source is enough: Oil, gas, coal, nuclear, sun, wind, geothermal, biofuels, hydropower. They all need to be on the table," said Mr. Salazar, a frequent target of the oil industry.
The announcement did not address drilling in the Great Lakes.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Great Lakes have an estimated 312 million barrels of oil, 5.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 122 million barrels of natural-gas liquids beneath them.
The lakes have been off-limits to more drilling for years.
Congress made the federal ban permanent under the Bush-Cheney Energy Policy Act of 2005.
The Great Lakes hold 90 percent of the fresh surface water in the United States and 20 percent worldwide.
About 475 wells in Canada extract natural gas from the north side of Lake Erie between Port Alma, Ont., and Port Colburne, Ont. At least five wells have extracted oil from beneath the lake bed near Leamington, Ont.
Canadian drillers have placed some 2,500 wells beneath Lake Erie since 1913, although most large-scale activity didn't begin until the 1960s.
Michigan is the only place where drilling has occurred in recent years on the U.S. side. Three shoreline wells in Manistee County extract natural gas from eastern Lake Michigan and two shoreline wells in Bay County extract gas beneath the western side of Lake Huron.