A decision by the Obama administration against drilling for oil and natural gas in the Atlantic Ocean is a blow to Virginia’s governor and two senators — all Democrats and all advocates for drilling in waters off the commonwealth.
The decision by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management against offering leases to oil and gas companies affects Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. And although there has been local opposition in those states, top officials in all four have advocated drilling.
But only in Virginia are those leaders high-profile Democrats, putting them at odds with Tuesday’s decision by the Obama administration.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said her agency weighed the arguments for drilling against objections from the Pentagon and coastal communities and decided against awarding oil and natural gas leases to companies starting in 2017.
The Defense Department said that drilling would interfere with live training exercises conducted off the Atlantic Coast, and testing of major systems in the region.
Sens. Timothy M. Kaine and Mark R. Warner, both democrats, took issue with the Pentagon’s argument.
“The DOD has been relatively quiet during this public debate and has never shared their objections with me before,” Kaine said in a statement. Warner said he “look[s] forward to getting a full briefing from the Navy and NASA Wallops [Island] about the nature of their concerns.”
Gov. Terry McAuliffe is “aware of the concerns voiced by the Department of Defense,” spokesman Brian Coy said. “There’s more work for us here, obviously.”
The enthusiasm for offshore drilling is more notable given that all three Democrats have been high-profile allies of and surrogates for Hillary Clinton, who is opposed to drilling in the Atlantic. All three have been named as potential running mates for the former secretary of state.
“It definitely is unusual” for a trio of well-known Democrats to clash with a Democratic White House on the issue, said Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
And although Kaine, Warner and McAuliffe are advocates for clean-energy alternatives, such as wind farms, they all believe that Virginia — which produces next to no oil — could benefit economically from the boom that has created significant revenue for states including North Dakota and Texas.
The divide has caused some confusion. Earlier this month, a Greenpeace activist asked McAuliffe whether he would join Clinton in opposition.
“If she wants to do it, I’d support her with that,” McAuliffe said in the videotaped encounter. “If she wants, you bet!”
Coy later clarified that McAuliffe was merely supporting Clinton’s right to her own position.
Athan Manuel, director of the lands-protection program at the Sierra Club, said the Democratic support for drilling in Virginia made organizing against the plan more of a challenge than in the other three states, where Republicans dominate.
“These decisions are as much about politics as energy policy, and the fact that the three Democrats in Virginia were in favor made it much harder,” he said.
He said the Democratic support for drilling came up while Sierra Club was lobbying the White House and organizing opposition inside Virginia.
Supporters of drilling said they were disappointed that Kaine, Warner and McAuliffe didn’t have more influence on the administration’s decision.
“I would have hoped they would have considered what the governors and the senators were saying on a bipartisan basis,” said Erik Milito, director of Upstream and Industry Operations for the American Petroleum Institute.
“The governor and both Democratic senators were largely in it for the potential revenue to the state generated by offshore drilling. That was back when the administration was moving toward allowing drilling and there appeared no other option,” said Mark Rozell, acting dean of the School of Policy, Government and International Affairs at George Mason University. “I think this decision caught them — and many others — by surprise.”
Tuesday’s decision applies to a five-year period, from 2017 to 2022, when drilling in the southeastern Atlantic will be considered again.
In the meantime, Kaine and Warner will continue to push legislation that would allow their states to share in any revenue produced by drilling offshore. Without that guarantee, all three Virginia Democrats say they would no longer be interested in oil excavation.
A lot could change in five years.
Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who is running to succeed McAuliffe, opposes offshore drilling. And Warner noted in his statement that “the changed economics surrounding oil and gas development” might make drilling less appealing in the future.