The irony was not lost on Virginians when, 48 hours after the Obama administration banned oil and gas development on more than 12 million acres of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it reversed a 2010 moratorium on oil and gas leases off a wide swath of the Atlantic coast from Virginia to Georgia.
The January decision to lift the moratorium, imposed following the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill, drew an outcry from environmentalists and laurels from those who claim it will create jobs and provide energy security. Drilling is years away, but the Interior Department’s proposals could be finalized this year, after a public comment period.
While the environmental concerns are worthy of consideration, a compelling case can be made about the negative consequences of offshore oil and gas exploration on Virginia’s economy.
Virginians would assume all the risk of offshore drilling with no reward. Using Interior’s estimates of oil and natural gas reserves on the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), drilling would yield only a few months’ worth of the oil and natural gas our nation uses annually. Absent a royalty-sharing agreement with Virginia, the commonwealth would receive no revenue from the drilling.
Offshore oil and gas exploration poses real economic risks for Virginia, an argument my Virginia colleagues Rep. Bobby Scott (D) and Rep. Don Beyer (D) made when asking Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to reconsider the decision to open our waters to drilling.
Allowing drilling on the Atlantic OCS would threaten the massive Defense Department presence in the Hampton Roads region, home to the world’s largest naval station and an array of other Navy and Defense Dept. bases, facilities and private-sector partners. Defense-related activities and spending help drive Virginia’s economy, accounting for 41 percent of Hampton Roads’s economy, 40 percent of its jobs and more than $35 billion in gross regional product.
The Navy and NASA have said repeatedly that Atlantic OCS drilling could significantly affect their training and testing activities in support of national security and strategic interests. A May 2010 Defense Department report found that nearly 80 percent of the proposed lease area off Virginia’s coast would interfere with Navy training and operations. Virginia’s congressional delegation and state leaders have worked hard to expand the Navy’s operations in Hampton Roads. Making the waters off the coast inhospitable to critical naval operations would torpedo those efforts.
Beyond the defense-related implications from drilling, we cannot minimize the economic impact of an oil spill on Virginia’s important tourism, recreation and fishing industries. Last year, more than 2.1 million people visited our coastal barrier islands, while another 2.7 million visited Virginia Beach. Commercial fishing, tourism and recreation support more than 91,000 jobs and generate nearly $5 billion in economic output in Virginia.
Since the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Congress has failed to strengthen regulations on offshore drilling. Why would we risk such an incident, which would wreak havoc on Virginia’s coastal economy, for only a few months’ worth of our nation’s energy supply? To visualize the impact: The BP oil spill, superimposed on our regional map, would stretch from Dale City, in Prince William County, to New York City, despoiling much of the Mid-Atlantic coast.
President Obama has forged a lasting legacy of conservation and environmental protection by prohibiting drilling on millions of acres of land and coastal waters in Alaska, as well as creating 11 new national monuments across the country. That is why it is so hard to fathom why the administration has ignored clear economic and environmental justification to exclude the Atlantic OCS from offshore exploration.
The writer, a Democrat, represents Virginia’s 11th Congressional District in the House.