By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 15, 2008; B01
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.
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.
"It's probably impossible to know, given the paucity of data," said Chris Oynes, an associate director of the service, which oversees offshore drilling.
If Congress does reopen these areas -- and Bush ends a similar presidential moratorium, as he has promised -- the decision about whether to allow drilling could then fall to the three Eastern Shore states.
So far, Maryland officials seem to be the most adamant against drilling. A spokesman said Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is opposed. So are the state's two senators, Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin.
"You're talking about a natural treasure in Assateague Island, and you're talking about one of Maryland's premier tourist destinations" in Ocean City, Cardin said. He said that an oil spill from a platform or pipeline could devastate both. "We don't want to put that kind of risk on our state."
Delaware officials said they would at least listen to proposals from energy companies.
"It's not an automatic, 'don't-even-think-about-it,' " state natural resources official David Small said.
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), by contrast, supports exploration for natural gas in areas more than 50 miles off the coast. State officials say that if gas or oil is actually found, they would decide whether to let companies pump it out.
Virginia Del. Christopher B. Saxman (R-Staunton), a supporter of drilling, said energy companies have indicated some interest in exploring Virginia waters. But, he said, they also were cautious because so little is known about the area.
"Whether Virginia is going to realize a significant amount of offshore drilling . . . remains to be seen," Saxman said. "But we should at least open up the possibility."
And even if states do allow drilling, it is unclear when -- or if -- oil and gas companies will be interested.
Energy analysts said such companies probably would be more interested in other now-closed areas, off the California and Florida coasts. These places are closer to existing oil pipelines and refineries, they said, and their oil and gas deposits have been studied much more thoroughly.
"There would probably be far more interested in the eastern Gulf of Mexico than they would be in the mid-Atlantic," said Stewart Glickman, an equity analyst at Standard & Poor's. But, Glickman said, "it is a possibility at some point."
And even if they are interested, federal officials say it might take eight to 12 years before final approval is granted for large-scale extraction of oil or gas.
Local environmentalists say they are against any drilling, citing concerns about leaky pipelines, new on-shore processing plants and platform lights that might clutter up a pristine night sky. They are also afraid of a large-scale oil spill -- though officials at two national seashore parks along the Gulf Coast said this week that offshore rigs near them cause few major pollution problems.
On the Eastern Shore, activists say that drilling could still harm the environment, even if nobody spills a drop. If burning the oil and gas contributes to climate change, they say, it would help raise the seas, which could swamp parts of the peninsula within a century.
"Why would we further jeopardize our coast with additional sea-level rise?" said Glen Besa, of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. He said that the drilling would also not provide an answer for long-term energy needs: "For every complex problem, there's a simple solution. And it's wrong."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.