The national energy debate hits close to home – the shores of Virginia

November 16, 2011

“[W]e will champion environmentally-safe offshore energy exploration and production, bringing with it thousands of new jobs,” Governor McDonnell told Virginians at his inaugural address last year. Specifically, the governor was talking about putting an oil rig 50 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach, after President Obama proposed to lift a nearly 30 year ban on drilling off the Atlantic coast. Plans to expand drilling to Virginia were disappointed, though, when the BP oil company threw a wrench in the design. That summer, the biggest oil spill in U.S. history in the Gulf of Mexico made President Obama rethink the drilling expansion.

The 5-year Proposed Oil and Gas Leasing Program released last week by the Department of the Interior does not allow for drilling in waters off of Virginia. Although the plan includes drilling expansion to some new areas in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, it is a far cry from the announcement last year that the Interior would expand drilling to the mid- and south-Atlantic, specifically Virginia – areas that have been off-limits to drilling for about 30 years due to laws enacted in the wake of previous devastating spills like the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989, the largest in U.S. history until the BP spill last year.

Not surprisingly, the new policy garners mixed reviews. Oil companies see miles of coastline on the east and west coasts available for drilling, yet those locations are off-limits, while demand and the price of oil stays high. Political advocates praise drilling as a jobs creator and a way to release the country from the control of foreign oil producers. Environmental groups fear another spill would kill wetlands and wildlife in sensitive areas in the arctic (where cleanup would be more difficult because of the harsher climate) or the already crippled Gulf of Mexico. They add that the economic argument for drilling is miscommunicated – the cost reduction would be too small to make a difference to gas prices and would take a long time to achieve, all the while threatening other coastal economic ventures like tourism and fishing should another accident happen.

The issue in Virginia has not been so predictable in terms of political support. Senator Webb and Senator Warner, Democrats, have both been vocal about their agreement with Republican Governor McDonnell in disappointment with President Obama’s plan. All three politicians support drilling off the Virginia coast, contingent upon a profit-splitting plan where the state would get a cut of oil proceeds to fund programs like transportation improvements.

The drilling question being decided may help our state’s leaders focus their attention on an alternative use of our positioning on the coast. Virginia is primely situated for wind energy. Encouragingly, it seems like there is enough political support for a wind farm off the coast of Virginia, but difficulties remain regarding regulation, funding and permitting for the budding wind industry. At least the Interior Department’s recent drilling plan eliminates the question of whether a wind turbine would complicate oil operations in the same area.

Caitlin Kilpatrick
Master of Public Policy Candidate, Class of 2013
Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy

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