U.S. President Barack Obama has announced new plans to expand offshore gas and oil exploration in the Atlantic Ocean, reversing a 29-year ban on most offshore drilling except in the Gulf of Mexico.

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A drillship sits on a station off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico in 2006. New plans for offshore drilling announced Wednesday would add exploration sites off the Atlantic coast of the U.S. ((Alex Brandon/Associated Press))

The Obama administration hopes new exploration will help wean the country from its dependence on foreign oil while strengthening its economy in both the short and long term.

"Moving toward clean energy is about our security," Obama said Wednesday at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. "It's about our economy. And it's about the future of our planet.

"But the bottom line is this: given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth, produce jobs and keep our businesses competitive, we're going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy."

Pre-empting criticism

Although Obama also shut down the possibility of exploration in the Bristol Bay area, in Alaska, in favour of environmental protection, his larger plan is sure to rile environmentalists, who argue against any new offshore oil platforms.

Directing his comments to them, Obama said Wednesday's announcement "is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy."

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President Barack Obama points towards an F-18 "Green Hornet," which will run partly on biofuel, during remarks on energy security at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Wednesday. ((Evan Vucci/Associated Press))

Obama also tried to pre-empt those who would suggest his policies don't go far enough in opening waters to drilling.

"Ultimately, 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 as a cure-all and those who claim it has no place because this issue is just too important to allow our progress to languish while we fight the same old battles over and over again," he said.

A 1981 ban prevented offshore drilling in about 80 per cent of the U.S. coastal shelf.

The area under the ban includes about 232 million hectares of coastal water, thought to contain undersea reserves of 18 billion barrels of oil and 77 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the U.S. Interior Department.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted in September 2008 to lift the ban — but only 80 or more kilometres out to sea and only if a state agreed to energy development off its shores.

Additional measures

Other plans announced Wednesday include:

  • Raising economy standards in cars and trucks to increase auto efficiency. Plans to be finalized Thursday will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil, Obama said.
  • Doubling the number of hybrid vehicles in the federal fleet while reducing the number of cars and trucks used by the government overall.
  • Purchasing 100 plug-in electric vehicles for the fleet, the first to "roll off American assembly lines."
  • Pursuing strategic initiatives at the Department of Defense to reduce harmful emissions and enhance "energy independence."
  • Testing by the U.S. Air Force of jet engines that use biofuel.