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Obama eases offshore drilling expansion

WASHINGTON - Pointing to the BP blowout and risks of a new environmental disaster, the Obama administration reversed itself yesterday and promised not to pursue offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico or anywhere else along the nation's East Coast.

The decision was hailed in Florida, which depends on tourists drawn by the state's white beaches, but criticized by the oil industry, which said the administration was stifling crucial U.S. energy production and costing recession-battered jobseekers golden opportunities for new work.

The administration had backed a major expansion of offshore drilling earlier this year, in part to gain support for comprehensive climate legislation in Congress, one of President Barack Obama's top legislative goals.

With that bill now off the table, the president stands much to gain politically by saying no to powerful oil interests, particularly in Florida, which is expected to be a crucial swing state in the 2012 election campaign.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar denied politics played any role, saying the BP spill taught officials a number of lessons, "most importantly that we need to proceed with caution and focus on creating a more stringent regulatory regime." The new drilling focus would be on areas with leases that are currently active in the central and western Gulf of Mexico.

Under the revised plan, the Interior Department will not propose any new oil drilling in waters in the Atlantic Ocean and eastern Gulf for at least the next seven years. Already-planned lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico will be delayed until late 2011 or early 2012, Salazar said.

The new plan allows potential drilling in Alaska, but officials said they will move cautiously before approving any leases.

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