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Prospect of Drilling Roils Political Waters

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A new push in Washington to increase offshore oil and natural-gas drilling has intrigued politicians and alarmed environmentalists in Maryland, Virginia and Delaware, where the ocean has been off-limits to exploration for 19 years.

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Energy experts, though, say Ocean City sunbathers probably won't find themselves staring out at oil rigs anytime soon.

Before drilling could begin, they say, Congress would have to reopen long-closed tracts of the Atlantic. Energy companies would have to make an expensive bet on a seabed they know little about. And then there would be a long turning of bureaucratic gears before any oil got pumped.

Virginia especially has shown interest in drilling for natural gas off its coast. But experts say it would be years before any drilling began anywhere off the Eastern Shore -- and it certainly wouldn't happen without a fight.

"You are looking at a pristine natural habitat destroyed. You're looking at dead fish floating in the water. You're looking at shorebirds and migratory birds and waterfowl covered in oil," said Kathy Phillips, an environmental activist for Assateague Island, whose title is "coastkeeper." She was imagining a major oil spill washing up on the island's shores. "People on this coast don't have any idea of what it involves," she said.

Yesterday, President Bush announced that he would lift an executive order banning oil and gas exploration along the mid-Atlantic and other sections of the U.S. coastline . Now, the focus will shift to Capitol Hill, where presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other Republicans have pushed legislators to lift a similar congressional ban.

The offshore areas at stake are in federal waters, which generally extend from three to about 200 miles offshore. New drilling is already permitted in parts of the Gulf of Mexico and the Alaska coast. But, in the 1980s, Congress banned it in a progressively larger area along the Pacific and Atlantic shorelines, as legislators from coastal states grew worried about oil spills.

Now, a bill in the U.S. Senate would reopen all areas more than 50 miles from shore, including those off Maryland, Virginia and Delaware. In its current form, the bill would give states the power to veto drilling off their shores. But it would reward those who say yes with a cut of the royalties that energy companies pay.

U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who said he plans to introduce a House bill that would reopen Virginia waters only, conceded that such moves would not immediately add to the country's fuel supply. But he said it still might lower the cost of today's $4-a-gallon gas by assuring energy companies that they would have fuel in the future.

"If we were to signal in this country that we're going to get serious" about drilling in offshore areas, Cantor said, "I do think that will send a signal to the global markets."

In theory, there are 3.82 billion barrels' worth of oil under the seabed along the entire Atlantic coast. That would meet U.S. petroleum needs for about half a year, according to federal estimates. They project that the natural gas under this seabed is more than three years' worth, at current rates of use.

But officials at the U.S. Minerals Management Service say there has been no exploratory drilling on this coast for more than two decades. So, while they believe that oil and gas are out there, they can only guess at how much.


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