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By Catharine Richert April 23, 2010

Obama didn't expand offshore drilling, Boehner says

UPDATE: This item was originally attributed to House Republican Leader John Boehner because we found this news release on his website. But after we published it, Boehner's staff pointed out to us that it actually originated with the Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee. So we are republishing the item and attributing it to them. Our analysis and ruling has not changed.

A few weeks ago, President Barack Obama announced that he's going to open up new areas for offshore drilling.

But according to conservative members of Congress, he's actually closing them.

Here's such a claim in a news release from the Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee.

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"Obama did not open new lands to offshore drilling – all of these areas were already open for drilling once Congress and President Bush lifted the moratorium in 2008. Instead, President Obama yesterday announced what areas he would CLOSE to offshore drilling."

The claim has been made by other Republicans, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin who said at the April 9, 2010, Southern Republican Leadership Conference that, "after inheriting a good pro-development GOP plan, that opened up both coasts for drilling, the Obama administration halted development."

So yeah, we're confused.

Obama's March 31, 2010, announcement about offshore drilling didn't come as too much of a surprise to those who have been following the issue closely. During the campaign, Obama went from being staunchly against the idea of allowing more drilling to saying he would be open to the prospect, a shift for which we gave him a Half Flip. So, when he said on March 31, 2010, that he'd be allowing new drilling, we made the call that he hadn't drifted too much from where he'd ended up at the end of the campaign.

Here are the basics of Obama's plan, which lasts from 2012 through 2017:

• The coasts of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and part of Florida's eastern seaboard will be open to "exploration, study and potential development."
• The northern coast of Alaska in the Chuckchi and Beaufort Seas will also be open to study and potential development.
• The Bristol Bay area off of the southern coast of Alaska in the North Aleutian Basin is now protected by a presidential memorandum until 2017.

Investigating whether the Republicans are right about Obama's drilling proposal requires a little history.

In 1981, Congress authorized an annual offshore drilling moratorium, which was renewed regularly until 2008. Included in that ban were almost all of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts as well as parts of the Gulf of Mexico. In 1990, former President George H.W. Bush imposed an executive moratorium that overlapped with the areas prohibited from drilling under the congressional ban.

In 2008, former President George W. Bush lifted his father's ban on drilling. And in the same year, amid high gas prices and election pressures, Democratic leaders allowed the nearly 30-year-old ban on drilling to lapse.

Shortly before Bush left office, the Minerals Management Service of the Department of Interior issued a new five-year leasing plan that proposed opening up areas in the Pacific, Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico to new drilling. Also included in the proposal were Bristol Bay as well as the Chuckchi and Beaufort Seas.

So, Obama was left with a drilling plan from the former administration, and choices to make as his administration crafted its own energy policy.

Under the Bush plan, those areas would have been opened quickly with only a short period of time for citizens, lawmakers and others involved in the process to vet the proposal. So, on Feb. 10, 2009, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar decided to extend the comment period on the new plan for another 180 days. During that time, Salazar held public meetings in the areas that would be impacted by the new drilling.

And that brings us to March 31, when Obama announced that he would be allowing new drilling. Looking at his plan -- and the proposal Bush put on the dockets right before he left office -- it's clear that Obama decided to move forward on some parts of the Bush proposal, including drilling in the Atlantic, but scrap other parts, such as drilling in the Northeast and in Bristol Bay.

So, generally speaking, the Republicans are correct that the areas where Obama is proposing new drilling were already open when Bush and Congress lifted the bans in 2008.

But there is one area that is part of Obama's proposal that was not protected by either ban. It's a swath of ocean in the eastern Gulf of Mexico that is off limits until 2022 as part of the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006. Congress will have to rescind this law in order for drilling to take place there.

The Republicans on the committee also said that the only news in Obama's drilling announcement is what areas he plans to close to drilling. Indeed, Bristol Bay has been closed to drilling until 2017 by presidential memorandum. But areas off the coast of California, for instance, have simply not been included in Obama's current drilling plan, which lasts until 2017. So, they're not officially closed, just off the table for now. Republicans also point out that most areas in Obama's plan will be studied for potential drilling first, which could slow the entire process. In theory, some of those areas may never be leased at all, but that remains to be seen.

Let's recap: There is some truth to the Republicans' assertion that Obama hasn't opened new areas to drilling given the Bush proposal that was already on the books. But he overlooked the patch of ocean in the eastern gulf that was not part of Bush's plan and is in Obama's proposal. On their second point, the Republicans are also on less than solid ground. Indeed, Bristol Bay -- which likely would have been leased for drilling under the Bush administration -- is closed to drilling, at least until 2017. But other areas not included in Obama's current five-year drilling plan, such as areas in the Pacific, are not technically closed; they're just unavailable for the time being. As a result, we give the Republican members a Barely True.

Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.

Our Sources

Web site of House Republican Leader John Boehner, What They’re Saying about President Obama’s Decision to Lock Up the Vast Majority of America’s Offshore Energy Resources, April 5, 2010

The House Natural Resources Committee Republicans, Facts and Maps on Obama Administration's Plan to Lock Up the OCS, April 1, 2010

Sarah Palin's speech at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, April 9, 2010, More compromise than change of heart, by Robert Farley, Aug. 5, 2008, Once wobbly, Obama not inconsistent in latest oil drilling proposal, by Catharine Richert, March 31, 2010

The Department of Interior, Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Region Strategies, accessed April 12, 2010

The Department of Interior, Alaska Region, accessed April 12, 2010

The White House, Presidential Memorandum--United States Outer Continental Shelf, March 31, 2010

House Natural Resources Committee, Republican Members,Administration Extends Ban on New Offshore Drilling to 2010, March 8, 2010

The Heritage Foundation, Congressional Moratorium on Offshore Drilling in the OuterContinental Shelf Should Be Allowed to Expire, by Ben Lieberman, Aug. 8, 2008

The Department of Interior, Draft Proposed Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Program 2010-2015, accessed Apriol 20, 2010

The Washington Post, Plan, Baby, Plan, Feb. 12, 2010

The Hill, Obama's offshore drilling push shakes up congressional fight over climate bill, by Ben Geman, April 1, 2010

The Minerals Management Service, Minerals Management Service and the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006, accessed April 20, 2010

Environmental News Service, Obama Opens Atlantic Coast to Oil Drilling, Protects Bristol Bay, March 31, 2010

Phone Interview, Richard Charter Senior Policy Advisor, Marine Programs, Defenders of Wildlife, April 14, 2010

Phone Interview, Mark Ferrulo, Executive Director, Progress Florida, April 14, 2010

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Obama didn't expand offshore drilling, Boehner says

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