A rig and supply vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

The Obama administration is reworking its plan to open the southern Atlantic Coast to offshore oil exploration because of strong opposition from the Pentagon, which says the activity could hurt military maneuvers and interfere with missile tests the Navy relies on to protect the coast.

Early this week, Interior Department officials from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management expect to release an update of its draft proposal to lease federal waters to oil and gas companies off the coasts of Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. That update will reflect the military’s concerns, officials say.

The Pentagon confirmed Sunday that it provided an assessment of Interior’s map for oil exploration on the coastal outer shelf “that identifies locations … areas where the [Defense’s] offshore readiness activities are not compatible, partially compatible or minimally impacted by oil and gas activities,” spokesman Matthew Allen said.

Live training exercises are conducted off the Atlantic Coast, “from unit level training to major joint service and fleet exercises,” Allen said in a statement. “These live training events are fundamental to the ability of our airmen, sailors, and marines to attain and sustain the highest levels of military readiness. Additionally, [the Defense Department] conducts major systems testing activities in the mid-Atlantic region that are also important to military readiness.”

Allen referred questions about how the Pentagon’s concerns might affect the update to Interior. Officials there provided The Washington Post with a map showing Defense proposed to close at least 10 percent of areas available to lease for activities including seismic exploration for oil and gas resources as well as for drilling platforms. The restrictions would cover most of the waters the current plan allots to Virginia.

In the remaining 90 percent of potential lease areas, Defense wants advance notice of activity so it can study potential hazards on a case-by-case basis, the officials said.

Interior confirmed last week that an update was in the works but declined to discuss specifics. Under the draft plan released in January 2015, the department would sell leases in federal waters over five years starting in 2017 to companies hoping to prospect for oil, gas and other minerals. Actual drilling might not start for a decade.

The update could dampen the enthusiasm that oil industry representatives and southern coastal-state governors showed when the draft was released. According to Interior’s estimates, more than 3 billion barrels of oil is recoverable on the outer continental shelf, plus more than 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

But a revised plan could buoy hopes in at least 93 coastal communities from Virginia’s stretch of the Delmarva Peninsula to South Carolina’s Myrtle Beach and Savannah, Ga. They want offshore drilling greatly restricted to lessen any potential threat to beaches that annually draw hundreds of millions of tourist dollars. Many early supporters of Atlantic drilling and the revenue it could generate switched sides after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and then the more recent plunge in oil prices.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) supports leasing, but only in coordination with all sides and in a way that protects state assets such as Naval Station Norfolk, said his spokesman, Brian Coy. He declined to discuss the possibility of Virginia’s lease acreage being pulled “because that has not been shared with us.” He said the governor  was aware of the military’s concerns and hopes that issues can be worked out before the draft is finalized in December.

Yet Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam (D) opposes oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic. “Over the years, [Northam] has heard about the negative impact offshore drilling could have on Virginia, including our military assets,” said his spokeswoman, Alexsis Rodgers. “Retaining and protecting our military assets is a top priority for him and absolutely one of the reasons he has been opposed to drilling off Virginia’s coast.”


Fire rages on the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. (U.S. Coast Guard via European Pressphoto Agency)

Virginia’s proposed acreage is a triangle-shaped boundary off the Delmarva Peninsula and Virginia Beach. The military also wants to restrict large blocks of proposed lease areas in North Carolina and Georgia, plus a smaller space in South Carolina, where Gov. Nikki Haley (R) strongly supports energy exploration.

Haley “believes offshore exploration should be done in a way that protects … our environment, our ports and our tourism industry,” said her spokeswoman, Chaney Adams. But “she’s also been clear: Exploring offshore for energy is critical to our future because it means jobs, energy independence from other countries and security for our state.”

Erik Milito, group director of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute, an advocacy organization for the oil and gas industry, said “this is still a very early stage” in the process of allowing companies to lease ocean areas for drilling. Taking any areas off the table “would be premature,” he said.

Milito said oil and companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico, where drilling is allowed and would be expanded under the draft plan, work with the military to avoid negatively affecting its maneuvers and tests. “The industry has had tremendous success in the Gulf dealing with the Air Force and Navy … and looking at the Atlantic, that’s the approach we should take,” he said.

The map proposed for the Atlantic is an area where companies can only search for oil, Milito said. But the Pentagon has concerns that exploring for oil using seismic surveys could disrupt sonic activity.

The military’s concerns have long been known, and the 2015 draft plan didn’t reflect them, said Glen Besa, director of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter. In his opinion, it’s unclear now whether the differences can be worked out.

“The strange thing is, public officials have continued to ignore the Department of Defense,” he said. “They have all lined up in support of drilling, and we think that’s just foolhardy.”

Milito has a different view. It’s a long process, he said, with many details to work out before it’s done. “It’s a five-year program. It can be scaled back,” he said. “You work with the Interior to determine if there are any conflicts.” 

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