By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 24, 2009; C04
RICHMOND -- The federal government's decision to lift its longtime ban on offshore drilling has thrust the hot-button issue of coastal drilling to the forefront of the Virginia governor's race.
The three Democrats vying for their party's nomination next month are taking strikingly different positions on whether Virginia should join Alaska, Texas and Louisiana in setting up offshore platforms to drill for oil and natural gas.
Brian Moran, a former delegate from Alexandria, opposes all drilling, a position that is in keeping with his strategy to stake out progressive stances on a variety of issues in the hopes of appealing to the party's more liberal base.
Terry McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has said he supports exploratory gas drilling as long as it occurs at least 50 miles off the coast. And state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath) supports drilling for gas and maybe oil, too, if environmental and economic negatives can be minimized.
In a contest where the candidates agree on most major issues and offer similar approaches to tackling the economic crisis and to improving Virginia's transportation and education systems, their positioning on this key environmental question has set them apart. They have clashed on drilling repeatedly during their five debates, and each has tried to distinguish himself on the issue.
Robert F. McDonnell, the Republican nominee for governor, has sent a strong signal that he plans to make drilling a prominent issue during the general election.
"Offshore production of natural gas and oil is not the entire solution to our economic and energy challenges, but it is part of the solution," McDonnell said. "We need to stop with the delays and start making progress."
McDonnell came out early for oil and gas drilling as a way to mine new sources of energy, create jobs and boost tax revenue. He sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, urging him to allow Virginia to start drilling as soon as possible. And this weekend, he appeared at his first rally with Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, who last year turned the phrase "Drill, baby, drill," into a rallying cry.
Drilling became a major issue in last year's presidential campaign after Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and the Republicans highlighted their support to open more of the country's coastline for drilling to reduce escalating gas prices. Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D) eventually agreed that drilling needed to be part of a broad energy plan.
Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, argue that possible spills and new infrastructure on and offshore could harm plants, animals, tourism and the world's largest naval base, in Norfolk. "When the price of oil is high, people panic and want a solution," said Athan Manuel, the Sierra Club's offshore drilling expert.
But as the United States searches for alternative energy sources, petroleum companies wonder why Virginia would want to ignore a potential piece of the solution off its coast. "It's going to take a joint package," said Mike Ward, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council, part of a national group that represents 400 companies. "To exclude oil or gas is going to put us a long way back."
The last study of the Atlantic Ocean by the federal government, conducted two decades ago, estimates that at least 130 million barrels of oil and at least 1.14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas could be off Virginia's coast. That's equal to the amount of oil used in a week and the amount of gas used in a year in the United States.
Late last year, the Minerals Management Service, part of the Interior Department, included Virginia in its five-year plan and began soliciting companies to drill off the coast in 2011. It is the only state on the East Coast included in the plan.
But early this year, Salazar halted the process to review the plan and get input from the public.
The Democratic hopefuls have unveiled proposals calling for clean, renewable energy sources, but they disagree on whether any new energy should come from offshore drilling.
Moran is the only one who has come out against all forms of drilling, saying he wants to protect the tourism industry and the Navy and guard the Chesapeake Bay from further pollution.
Deeds and McAuliffe have said they are trying to balance the nation's need for new energy with a desire to respond to environmentally conscious constituents. They are calling for gas exploration and no oil drilling in the near future. They say that if an accident occurred, gas could easily dissipate but oil could contaminate the ocean.
"As governor, you have to explore what your possibilities are," McAuliffe said. "I'll look at it and balance everything."
Deeds and McAuliffe also say the state should only proceed if it can share in the profits.
"If we can receive royalties and protect the environment, protect fisheries, naval operations and tourism, then we ought to drill for oil," Deeds said. "What's wrong with that?"
In 2006, the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed an energy bill that would allow exploratory gas drilling 50 miles off the coast. Deeds and Moran voted for the final version of the 2006 bill.
McAuliffe frequently criticizes Moran for voting for the bill then but opposing drilling now as he runs for governor. But Moran said he has not flip-flopped. He said he voted for the final version of the 2006 bill solely to protect the state from a previous version, which had called for more drilling.
"There are any number of reasons to oppose offshore drilling," he said. "I oppose it."