Virginia Sens. Jim Webb and Mark R. Warner, both Democrats, introduced a bill Wednesday that would allow oil and natural gas drilling off the state’s coast starting next year.

“Opening up and expanding Virginia’s offshore resources to responsible natural gas and oil exploration holds significant promise for boosting needed domestic energy production while bolstering the commonwealth’s economy,” Webb said.

The Virginia Outer Continental Shelf Energy Production Act of 2011 would increase the area open to exploration and production and direct half of any leasing revenues to be paid to Virginia to support a range of projects, including land and water conservation efforts, development of clean energy resources, transportation projects and other infrastructure improvement efforts across the state.

“Senator Webb and I firmly believe that Virginians should benefit from any energy resources that are developed off of our coast, and our legislation specifically requires the federal government to make reasonable royalty payments to the commonwealth.”

Most of Virginia’s elected officials — 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 many have expressed caution after the deadly explosion in the Gulf of Mexico last year that created the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

President Obama announced last year that Virginia would 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 spill.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill calling for drilling off Virginia’s coast within a year. The Democratic-led Senate defeated the Republican measure to expand drilling in waters across the nation by a vote of 42 to 57.

Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who has made offshore drilling one of his administration’s top priorities, welcomed the legislation Wednesday.

“There is strong, bipartisan support for offshore energy exploration and production in Virginia,’’ he said. “We need more safe and reliable sources of domestic energy. We need more jobs. Utilizing our offshore oil and natural gas resources accomplishes both of these goals. I urge the United States Congress to take up this legislation immediately, and pass it swiftly. It is time we got serious about American energy security. ”

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.

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.

Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, said Webb, Warner and McDonnell are “offering answers they think people want to hear instead of real solutions.”

“Drilling off our coast will not reduce the price of gas and will only prolong our dependency on foreign oil,’’ he said. “Our country currently uses 25 percent of the world’s oil and only has three percent of the world’s reserves, so we cannot drill our way out of this problem. With growing demand for oil from China and India, we need to start investing in alternatives immediately.”