U.S. officials delay hearings on leases for oil and gas drilling off Virginia

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010

RICHMOND -- Federal officials Thursday indefinitely postponed public hearings on oil and gas leases that would allow for drilling off Virginia's coast, as they await an investigation into the causes of an explosion at an offshore drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

Aides to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), a proponent of offshore drilling, called the cancellation of the meetings "prudent" but said it would not necessarily delay the sale of leases to companies interested in drilling off Virginia's coast. The sale is scheduled to conclude by 2012. A spokesman for the U.S. Interior Department confirmed that the announcement had no immediate wider implications for the lease sale.

President Obama announced in March that he was lifting a moratorium on drilling for oil and natural gas in some areas off the East Coast, opening the Virginia coastline to exploratory drilling. But Obama said last week that all new drilling would be suspended until an investigation of the Louisiana accident was complete. No drilling was scheduled to take place off Virginia until sometime after the lease sale had been completed.

Environmentalists hailed Thursday's decision as a sign that the safety of drilling is being reevaluated after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon platform off the coast of Louisiana. They called on Obama to permanently cancel any process that would lead to drilling along the Eastern Seaboard.

"If they've postponed the public hearings, they've postponed the public comment period. And if the comment period is delayed for six months or a year, presumably, the sale will be delayed as well," said Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), an opponent of offshore drilling, applauded the decision, which he said means drilling off Virginia's coast is suspended.

"It's wholly appropriate, given that thousands of gallons of oil continue to pour into the Gulf from an accident we have yet to fully comprehend," he said in a statement. "Experts are concerned that the disaster could spread up the East Coast, contaminating Virginia's shores, if containment efforts fail."

Other groups, including the Pew Environment Group, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and the Southern Environmental Law Center, hailed the move as a significant disruption of plans for expanded drilling.

Tucker Martin, a spokesman for McDonnell, said the delay of public meetings should not change the timing of Virginia's planned offshore lease sale.

"This pause is a prudent step to ensure the Deepwater Horizon rig accident is appropriately studied and investigated, and the lessons learned are implemented moving forward," he said in a statement. "The Governor supports that investigation and, like the President, is committed to ensuring that future offshore operations occur in a safe and environmentally responsible manner."

The U.S. Minerals Management Service had been scheduled to hold three public hearings in coming weeks in Norfolk, North Carolina and Maryland.

In a statement, Interior Department spokesman Matt Lee-Ashley said the department was "temporarily postponing" the meetings so results of the safety investigation could be considered. He added that staffers who were to conduct the meetings are busy responding to the Louisiana explosion.

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