By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 13, 2008; A10
RICHMOND, Nov. 12 -- The Bush administration is moving ahead with efforts to lease the waters off Virginia's coast to companies interested in drilling for oil and natural gas, despite calls from environmentalists that the plan should wait for the new president to take office.
In a statement Wednesday, the Minerals Management Service announced it would start a 45-day public comment period on whether acreage offshore should be leased for exploration and drilling.
Once the public comment period ends, federal authorities would begin an environmental review to determine whether a drilling lease can be executed in 2011.
"This is basically the information-gathering phase," said Blossom Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Minerals Management Service, a division of the Interior Department. "We will find out environmental interests and the interests of the community and state."
The administration's decision to move forward comes four months after President Bush lifted an executive ban on offshore drilling. In September, the Democratic-controlled House and Senate decided not to renew a separate, congressional moratorium on offshore drilling that had been in place for more than two decades.
Randall Luthi, director of the Minerals Management Service, said there hasn't been oil or gas exploration off Virginia's coast since 1983. By moving forward now, the agency is fulfilling a request by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) to open up waters 50 miles offshore for exploration, Luthi said.
In 2006, Kaine signed a bill supporting federal efforts to determine how much natural gas exists 50 or more miles off the Atlantic coast.
In April, the Interior Department issued a revised five-year plan calling for drilling in federal waters off Virginia's coastlines if the federal moratorium were lifted.
"Those two actions allowed us to begin the process," Robinson said.
But Delacey Skinner, Kaine's communications director, said the Bush administration's proposed review goes beyond what Kaine had requested. She said the administration appears to be preparing for a "carte blanche leasing out of drilling rights."
"The state's official position . . . was we asked for a narrow lifting of the moratorium that was targeted specifically for exploratory drilling for natural gas only," Skinner said. "In that sense, this is significantly different from what Virginia was seeking."
Skinner added, "There are a number of issues that Virginians would like to see resolved before anyone moves forward with something this sweeping."
Republicans in the General Assembly are pushing for the sale of leasing rights offshore as a way to increase domestic oil and gas production and generate revenue for the state, which they want to put toward transportation.
Glen Besa, executive director of the Sierra Club, said his organization wants the review period halted until President-elect Barack Obama and the new Congress can decide whether to impose another moratorium.
During the campaign, Obama said he could support limited new drilling offshore if the proper environmental safeguards were met. But his transition chief, John D. Podesta, said over the weekend that Obama might want to slow the Bush administration's plans for offshore oil drilling.
"We are hoping to get a policy responsive to the concerns of global warming and also the issue of oil dependence," Besa said.