In a surprise move, the Obama administration backed away Tuesday from its proposal to allow drilling for oil and gas off the Atlantic Coast, including within 50 miles of the Chesapeake Bay’s mouth.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that after weighing concerns raised by coastal communities, the military and others, her agency would not include the middle and south Atlantic in its plan for issuing new leases for energy exploration on the nation’s continental shelf.

Environmental groups had been braced to protest Jewell’s announcement, since the Interior Department declared last year it was considering permitting drilling off the East Coast, from Virginia south to Georgia, for the first time in 30 years.  A mock oil spill planned in Richmond by the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club turned instead into a celebration.

“This is an incredible day for the Southeast” commented Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. Weaver said the decision “protects some of our most cherished places, from the Chesapeake Bay and the Outer Banks to the South Carolina Lowcountry and Georgia barrier islands.”

Drilling opponents had warned that a massive oil spill, though likely to be more than 50 miles off Virginia’s coast, could be devastating for the Bay. Fish such as striped bass, which use both the Chesapeake and the ocean, could be at risk, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, as could blue crabs, because their larvae drift out into the ocean before returning to the Bay.

The Interior Department said it decided against proposing offshore lease sales in the middle and southern Atlantic “due to current market dynamics, strong local opposition and conflicts with competing commercial and military ocean uses.”

But Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management plan for offshore drilling leases to be issued over the next five years – now limited to the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska -- has not been finalized.  The governor of Virginia, a drilling proponent, indicated that he has not given up.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe called the Interior proposal “an opportunity to work with the Department of Defense to address the concerns they have raised.” Virginia’s Hampton Roads region is home to the Navy’s Sixth Fleet.

Virginia’s senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, issued muted statements, though Kaine indicated he has long harbored doubts about drilling off the state's coast. 

Maryland’s Democratic elected officials, though, openly welcomed the elimination of Atlantic leasing. They have staunchly opposed Atlantic drilling, fearing a spill could harm not only the Bay but Ocean City and Assateague National Seashore on the Atlantic Coast.

“It is my hope that this decision finally puts to rest any and all misguided attempts to endanger the economic viability and environmental health of the region,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has said he supports an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy development, as long as it can be done “in an environmentally safe way.”

Industry reaction was negative. Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, attacked the revised proposal, saying that it "appeases extremists who seek to stop oil and natural gas production” at the cost of higher energy costs, fewer jobs and elevating geopolitical risk.

Secretary Jewell intends to approve the final five year plan before the end of her term in January 2017, Interior spokeswoman Amanda Degroff said.