In Virginia, mixed reaction to decision to allow offshore drilling

Reversing a ban on oil drilling off most U.S. shores, President Obama announced an expansive new policy that could put oil and natural gas platforms in waters along the Atlantic coastline, the Gulf of Mexico and part of Alaska.
By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010

In Virginia Beach, the state's largest city and one that relies heavily on tourism, Mayor Will Sessoms welcomed the news Wednesday that Virginia will become one of the first East Coast states to drill offshore for oil and natural gas.

The city passed a resolution recently that supports drilling off its shore, in part because it would help the tourism industry by keeping the cost of gas down, Sessoms said.

The federal government will allow drilling off the coast, but not for 50 miles, where rigs, platforms and other equipment cannot be detected by the naked eye. "These things are miles offshore," Sessoms said. "They won't be seen."

Most Virginia leaders -- regardless of political party -- have expressed interest in drilling, saying production would bring thousands of jobs and millions of dollars to the financially strapped state.

But it's unclear what direct benefit Virginia would reap from the decision, because the federal government would receive the proceeds from any companies that drill off the state's coast, and the amount of oil and gas offshore is uncertain.

Environmental groups and some Democratic members of Congress say they worry that possible spills and new infrastructure on shore and off could harm plants, animals, tourism and the Norfolk naval base, the world's largest, and cost the state far more than it could ever make on drilling.

Still, many of Virginia's political leaders in Richmond and Washington who have spent months lobbying the Obama administration to let them join the Gulf Coast states in drilling off the coast praised the announcement.

"This is part of our plan to truly make Virginia the energy capital of the East Coast," Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said at a news conference at the state Capitol. "This is a great day for Virginia. It's one that we will say that in the near future has generated a significant number of jobs. This is the breakthrough."

Companies could start bidding on contracts to conduct exploratory drilling in Virginia's waters in late 2011 or early 2012. Drilling would also be allowed off Maryland's shores, although years later.

Mike Ward, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council, part of a national group that represents 400 companies, said several companies have expressed interest in working off Virginia's coast.

"All you have to do is look at how much interest is in the Gulf of Mexico," Ward said. "This is a new frontier."

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 six days and the amount of gas used in less than a month in the United States.

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