Virginia leaders express interest in offshore drilling

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

RICHMOND -- Never has the political climate in Virginia so favored offshore drilling.

Most Virginia leaders -- regardless of their political party -- have expressed interest in joining Alaska, Texas, Louisiana and other states in setting up offshore platforms to drill for oil and natural gas.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and fellow elected Republicans strongly back the proposal, as do most members of the state's congressional delegation, including both U.S. senators, who are Democrats.

The General Assembly passed a pair of bills during its annual session that show the divided legislature's support for drilling -- one that backs exploration, development and production 50 miles off the coast, and another that directs 70 percent of any future drilling royalties to state road improvements.

Even Virginia Beach, the state's largest city and one that relies heavily on tourism, passed a resolution recently that supports oil and gas drilling off its shore.

The political shift comes as pressure builds for the United States to search for alternative energy sources while creating new jobs and revenue during the economic slowdown.

"This is common sense. Why not use our resources so we don't have to depend on fluctuating political realities in the Mideast to determine the cost of gasoline?" McDonnell said in an interview. "We have a tremendous arsenal of assets, and they all need to be used."

Virginia is in line to be the first Atlantic Coast state to drill off its shore, although it will probably be years before it starts, even if it receives the necessary approval from the Obama administration.

Congress would still need to pass a bill to allow Virginia to receive any royalties from offshore oil or gas drilling, as it did in 2006 when it allowed Gulf Coast states to begin taking home 37.5 percent of revenue.

Skeptics still abound. Environmental groups and some Democratic members of Congress, including U.S. Reps. James P. Moran Jr. of Northern Virginia and Robert C. Scott of Hampton Roads, say they worry that possible spills and new infrastructure onshore and off could harm plants, animals, tourism and the naval base in Norfolk, the world's largest.

"It's a dirty and dangerous business," said Athan Manuel, the Sierra Club's offshore drilling expert. "It's not where we should be going as a nation."

But in recent years, as public opinion polls have shown that many Americans favor offshore drilling, Republicans have pushed to open more of the country's coastline as a way to reduce energy prices and create jobs. In 2008, former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele, now chairman of the Republican National Committee, popularized the phrase "Drill, baby, drill!" -- which became a rallying cry for the GOP's desire to drill offshore.

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