Maryland today won federal assurance that no leases for offshore oil drilling within 54 miles of its coast will be granted until the state has a chance to argue in court that such drilling is environmentally unsafe.
Gov. Harry Hughes said the Justice Department agreed to the stipulation after the state filed suit in U.S. District Court in Washington seeking a ban on the close-in sites.
The Interior Department will accept bids Tuesday from oil companies competing for drilling rights in a huge area off the East Coast from Rhode Island to North Carolina.
The companies will bid on rights to 4,050 tracts of 5,600 acres apiece. Maryland maintains that 105 tracts off Ocean City and 192 off the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay are within 54 miles of shore, which the state regards as too close.
Interior's map shows drilling sites within 26 miles of Ocean City and 16 miles off the mouth of the bay. Maryland Natural Resources officials believe a spill from one of those sites, coupled with storm winds, could imperil the state's beaches and seafood industry.
New York and Virginia already have won promises from Justice that no leases would be approved within 50 miles of their shores until the courts rule on environmental safety. None of the three suits takes issue with the vast majority of sites which are beyond 50, or in Maryland's case 54, miles.
Natural Resources counsel Tom Deming said the state set the 54-mile limit on grounds that a massive oil spill would travel that far if propelled by a strong Northeast storm with winds of 50 knots lasting 36 hours.
"We don't want to be anti-business, I want to make that clear," Hughes said. He added, however, that the state needed to be certain its shellfish and other natural resources would be safe.
Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs said the government's environmental impact statement was inadequate in that it failed to consider a "worst-case" scenario of a major storm and spill and failed to accurately measure the cost-benefit ratio between the leasing program and its potential environmental impact.