|Drilling will continue where an explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon rig caused the worst oil disaster in US history [AFP]
Barack Obama, the US president, has reversed an earlier decision to expand offshore oil exploration to the Atlantic Ocean and eastern Gulf of Mexico, but allowed deepwater drilling to continue in the part of the Gulf hit by the BP oil disaster.
The move would ban oil and gas exploration in areas such as the area of the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida, and the mid- and southern Atlantic Ocean, until at least 2017.
Drilling in the Arctic, where only one company, Shell, has applied for a permit to drill a well, would proceed with "the utmost caution," Ken Salazar, the US interior secretary, said on Wednesday.
He said the policy reversal was made in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill which brought with it a stricter regulatory regime and tougher safety rules for offshore drilling.
"We have revised our initial March announcement ... to focus and expand our critical resources on areas with leases that are currently active."
However, the policy shift does not affect drilling in the central or western Gulf of Mexico, where an explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20 triggered the worst maritime oil disaster in US history.
"The modified plan allows currently scheduled lease sales to proceed in the western and central Gulf of Mexico, subject to rigorous environmental analysis," the interior secretary said.
The decision brought mixed reactions from politicians in states that were affected by the oil spill or would have seen oil rigs off their coastlines if exploration had gone ahead in the Atlantic and eastern Gulf.
Bill Nelson, a Florida Democratic senator, said the decision would safeguard his state's vital tourism and fishing industries, and Florida's "unique environment".
The US Chamber of Commerce criticised the Obama administration for keeping "America's abundant oil and natural gas resources under lock and key ... ensuring that we will continue to increase our dependence on foreign oil".
John Culberson, a Republican congressman from Texas, also gave the move the thumbs-down, saying it would "raise energy prices, dampen economic growth, send American jobs overseas, and inflict more pain and suffering on American consumers during these difficult economic times".
Environmental groups, which had bitterly opposed the March decision, gave the announcement a mixed reception.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said the move "did not go far enough" because it left the door open for drilling in the Arctic and allowed seismic testing in the Atlantic, both of which could endanger fragile environments and the livelihoods of millions of Americans.
Athan Manuel, of the Sierra Club environmental group, said that while keeping drilling out of the eastern Gulf and Atlantic was a "step in the right direction ... an oil spill like the BP disaster could happen anywhere in Alaska or in the central and western Gulf where drilling is allowed."
The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and caused a record 4.9 million barrels, or 185 million gallons, of crude to spew into the sea, crippling the fishing and tourism industries in the Gulf coast states and causing untold damage to the region's fragile eco-system.