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History of Offshore Drilling

Each individual state controls leasing off its coast from the shoreline out to three nautical miles. Beyond that, the Federal government owns the seabed and its mineral resources.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), under the Department of the Interior, doles out offshore leases. However, both Congress and the President are able to limit the areas available for leasing by imposing moratoria.

In 1982, Congress placed a moratorium on oil and gas leasing off the west coast of the United States, and in the years that followed, they also restricted leasing off the Atlantic coast and the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Then in 1990, President George H.W. Bush issued an executive moratorium on oil and gas leasing in those same regions, which was extended by President Bill Clinton until 2012.

For more than 25 years, U.S. waters were protected, until 2008 when President George W. Bush lifted the executive moratorium. At the same time, fueled by rising gas prices and a challenging election year, cries of “drill baby drill” convinced Congress to allow the moratorium to lapse as well.

In a 2006 bipartisan agreement, Congress passed the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA) which opened up new areas in the western and central Gulf while protecting the eastern Gulf until 2022.  

When President Obama took office, his administration put a hold on the plan to allow appropriate time for comments from all sides of the drilling debate. But in March 2010, President Obama announced that he would open much of the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska to offshore drilling, including areas that were previously protected.

Shortly after this announcement, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April, 2010, resulting in the largest accidental oil spill in history. Oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days, releasing 200 million gallons of oil pollution into the marine environment. The consequences of this disaster will continue to accumulate for many years to come, and this serves a clear example of the dangers of offshore drilling.

In a great victory for the oceans, in December of 2010 it was announced that in the new 5 year plan for offshore drilling, no new offshore drilling would be allowed in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico or off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The Eastern Gulf of Mexico was even protected from offshore oil and gas exploration for the next seven years.