Va. officials reconsider support for drilling after gulf oil accident

Oil companies stress one another's failures in a Senate hearing as cleanup and containment efforts continue in the Gulf of Mexico, after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig April 20.
By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

RICHMOND -- Some Virginia leaders are reconsidering their support for drilling off the state's coast after a fatal well accident in the Gulf of Mexico, even as Gov. Robert F. McDonnell continues to lobby aggressively to drill for oil and natural gas without delay.

McDonnell (R), who has made drilling off Virginia's coast one of his administration's top priorities, flew to Houston on Monday to tout the benefits of offshore drilling at an industry-sponsored conference. He told reporters before he left that he does not want to postpone drilling but to learn from the accident off Louisiana's coast.

"What we do as Americans is we find out what went wrong and how can we do things better," McDonnell said. "I think that's the spirit of the American people."

President Obama announced in March that Virginia will become one of the first East Coast states to drill offshore for oil and natural gas. Companies could start bidding on contracts to conduct exploratory drilling in Virginia's waters 50 miles off the coast late next year or early in 2012.

In Virginia Beach, the state's largest city and one that relies heavily on tourism, Mayor Will Sessoms said he would be worried if that timetable was not altered. Sessoms supported drilling and helped the city pass a resolution in favor of it, in part to help the tourism industry by keeping the cost of gas down. But, he said, the Louisiana accident was a wake-up call.

"It's alarming to me,'' Sessoms said. "It gives me great concern."

Obama vowed Friday that no expansion of offshore oil drilling would take place until federal investigations into the Louisiana accident are complete.

Virginia's senators, both Democrats who support drilling, said they agree that drilling should be delayed. Sen. Mark Warner said it was "appropriate" for Obama to delay offshore projects until safeguards are in place to prevent rig explosions like the one that caused the gulf spill, his spokesman Kevin Hall said. Sen. James Webb said "the facts must be ascertained to determine how the disaster off the Gulf Coast could have been prevented" before drilling takes place, his spokeswoman Jessica Smith said.

McDonnell said he wants to see a full investigation into the Louisiana accident, but he still thinks that drilling could begin off Virginia's coast as soon as next year or early 2012.

He campaigned last year on paying for road improvements in part with proceeds from oil and gas drilling. Congress would still need to pass a bill to allow Virginia to receive 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.

McDonnell has also said that drilling off Virginia's coast would create thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue, as well as lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

An explosion and fire April 20 on an exploratory well in the Gulf of Mexico left 11 workers missing and presumed dead. Crude oil has been leaking into the gulf since, inching closer to the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

The accident confirmed the worst fears of environmental groups and members of Congress already worried that possible spills and new infrastructure could harm plants, animals, tourism and the Norfolk naval base.

Rep. James Moran, a Northern Virginia Democrat and chairman of the appropriations subcommittee for the interior and environment, wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, urging him to reconsider allowing offshore drilling. "Regardless of ideology, this situation should give everyone pause regarding expansion of offshore drilling," Moran said.

Cathryn McCue of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which opposes offshore drilling, said the Louisiana accident is a "stark reminder for people about what the con side of the equation is."

In Virginia and North Carolina last week, federal officials held their first meetings to seek public comment on proposed seismic testing off the coast.

The meetings in Norfolk on Thursday were dominated by talk about the Louisiana accident.

The last study of the Atlantic Ocean by the federal government, conducted two decades ago, estimated 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.

Many experts think tests on similar geographic areas in other parts of the world and limited seismic work off Virginia's coast indicate that there is far more oil and natural gas offshore, although no one has been able to show accurately what is there because of federal restrictions.

McDonnell flew to Houston on Monday to attend the 2010 Offshore Technology Conference, a global gathering attended by tens of thousands of people, where he participated in an afternoon panel discussion about how energy production can boost state and national economies. But as at the Norfolk meeting, talk of the Louisiana accident dominated the session.

The conference is sponsored by a variety of companies and associations, including BP, which owns the leaking well in the Louisiana accident. McDonnell's political action committee, Opportunity Virginia, paid for the trip. His spokeswoman Stacey Johnson said she would not know the cost of the trip until he returned Tuesday.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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