While oil and gas companies assess the scope and possibilities of the Obama administration’s new plans for offshore drilling — or not drilling, as the case may be, in Alaska — the big step forward that we see is the potential for leasing in the Atlantic coast.

The draft five-year plan from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is just that, a draft plan. It’s going to take a lot of comment and probably political pressure before it is final. And finality can be overthrown by events instead of merely sound arguments; in 2010, the administration also embraced exploration and potential development off Virginia, but the BP disaster forced its cancellation.

The administration can hardly be blamed for that, but officials have steadfastly refused in the years since to revisit the issue of Atlantic drilling. The Louisiana delegation in Congress, led by then-U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, repeatedly pushed the idea, but until this draft plan without success.

No leases have been purchased off the eastern states since the 1980s and there has been no producing well in federal offshore waters.

That can and should change.

“We continue to consider oil and gas exploration in the Arctic and propose for further consideration a new area in the Atlantic Ocean, and we are committed to gathering the necessary science and information to develop resources the right way and in the right places,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said.

We think that reflects progress, but the draft plan is accompanied by a presidential order that would designate as wilderness some 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Drilling in ANWR and elsewhere off the Alaska coast remains a major goal of the industry; a wilderness designation would stand in the way.

But that is oil that is a long way away under harsh conditions.

Landrieu’s successor, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., reacted with traditional partisan rhetoric to the draft plan, calling the combined decisions by Obama “a thousand steps back” for every step forward.

“Louisiana is home to workers in the oil and gas service and shipbuilding industries. Closing off parts of Alaska for energy exploration means fewer ships, fewer jobs for Louisiana workers,” Cassidy said, and that will play well here as the low price of oil has resulted in layoffs and other cutbacks in oilfield service companies.

The price of oil will drive many of these decisions for a good long while, and ANWR or not, there is a price problem in the industry for a time.

We see a breakthrough in the Atlantic as one of major importance, not for tomorrow but for a decade or so hence. It’s also, as per the Macondo explosion, subject to revocation unless the industry continues to perform safely and with great environmental sensitivity.

We hope that Republicans will show the administration a little love as it, belatedly, takes a step for future energy security through Atlantic coast drilling.