The Republican-controlled U.S. House passed a bill Thursday that calls for offshore oil and gas drilling off Virginia’s coast within a year.

Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who has made drilling off Virginia's coast one of his administration's top priorities, cheered the vote.

“By allowing for offshore energy exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, and requiring the lease sale off the Atlantic Coast to move forward, we will be well on our way to restarting offshore energy production which will create jobs, lower energy costs and generate revenue to help pay down the national debt,’’ McDonnell said. “This legislation is essential to getting American energy production back on track.”

The House passed the bill 266 to 149, with Virginia’s Republicans voting in favor. It would force the government to conduct three lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and one off the Atlantic Coast within a year, or by June 2012. But the bill does not provide royalties for the state.

The bill is likely to face stiff opposition in the Democratic-led Senate.

“This bill is more about scoring political points and currying favor with the oil and gas industry than reducing the price of energy,” U.S. Rep Jim Moran (D-Va.) said. “The proposed lease sale would interfere with U.S. Navy operations and Virginia’s commercial fishery and tourism industries. National Security and economic growth should trump lining the pockets of big oil executives.” 

President Obama announced last year that Virginia will become one of the first East Coast states to drill offshore. Companies were to start bidding on contracts to conduct exploratory drilling in Virginia's waters 50 miles off the coast in 2011 or 2012.

But the administration postponed the sales after the massive BP oil spill.

“In response to the Obama administration’s aggressive fight against domestic energy production, House Republicans have taken another important step to encourage economic growth, create jobs and lower gas prices – especially right here at home in the Commonwealth,’’ House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said. “The current regulatory blockade on domestic drilling for oil and gas has stifled energy development and eliminated plans to tap Virginia’s offshore energy resources.”

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.

“This vote ignores utterly the lessons of the Deepwater Horizon disaster that we need a much more careful approach to offshore drilling, and not rush headlong to open up areas for drilling simply to gain political points,’’ said Nat Mund, legislative director for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Experts in industry, academia and government all understand that the rise in gas prices is tied to the world market and that we can’t drill our way out of it.’’