A Bush administration nudge toward opening waters off Virginia for oil and gas leasing is rankling environmentalists, who have begun lobbying President-elect Barack Obama to reinstate an offshore drilling ban lifted by President George W. Bush last summer
A Bush administration nudge toward opening waters off Virginia for oil and gas leasing is rankling environmentalists, who have begun lobbying President-elect Barack Obama to reinstate an offshore drilling ban lifted by President George W. Bush last summer.
The Minerals Management Service took the first step last week toward potentially leasing 2.9 million acres - an area about the size of Connecticut - to oil and gas companies in 2011. The plan calls for a 50-mile shoreline buffer.
It is the first such action since Bush, in June, lifted an executive order banning coastal oil exploration in June. Then, in September, Congress let lapse a 26-year congressional ban on drilling. Drilling remains off limits in the eastern Gulf of Mexico where a 2006 law bans drilling for the next 14 years.
The administration's move in its waning days helps set the stage for debate early next year over offshore oil drilling. Proponents cite the nation's dependence on foreign oil and high gas prices, while opponents cite environmental, tourism and fishing concerns.
The debate remains the same, but the political landscape has changed, with Democrats now in control of the White House and Congress and drivers seeing lower gas prices.
"The good news is the chant of 'Drill, baby, drill!' lost the election," said Michael Gravitz, oceans advocate for Environment America, referring to what became the mantra of the Republican National Convention and some supporters of GOP nominee Sen. John McCain.
Among McCain's voters, 90 percent favored drilling, according to an exit poll of voters on Election Day. Those who voted for Obama were more closely divided: 49 percent favored drilling and 45 percent were opposed, according to the poll conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International for the National Election Pool, a consortium of the television networks and the Associated Press.
Obama said early in his campaign that he was opposed to offshore drilling. He later said he would consider it, although he does not believe it significantly addresses the nation's energy needs.
Outer Banks at risk?
At stake in the proposed area off Virginia is 130 million barrels of oil and 1.14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to government estimates.
"One of our concerns is if there is a spill or a catastrophe of any sort, it's very likely that the prevailing Labrador Current will place the oil slicks on North Carolina beaches, particularly the Outer Banks," said Jim Stephenson, policy director of the N.C. Coastal Federation.
The Minerals Management Service moved ahead with the plan because the Virginia state legislature passed a bill two years ago supporting offshore drilling for natural gas, but not oil.
"The state has signaled that this is important to them," said Lisa Flavin, senior policy advisor to the American Petroleum Institute.
"Virginia is a good start," she said. "We hope that the new administration continues the process of increasing our domestic oil and gas production."
To be sure, the administration's move does not mean oil and gas rigs will soon appear off Virginia's coast.
"This is the beginning of a very long process," said Blossom Robinson, a Minerals Management Service spokeswoman. "This is the information stage where we gather information and our environmental assessments, and get involved with the community."
That's some relief for North Carolina, where offshore drilling divided Republican Pat McCrory and Democrat Beverly Perdue in the race for governor. McCrory, a drilling proponent, lost the race.
"Any drilling off the coast of Virginia would benefit North Carolina basically not at all," said Chrissy Pearson, spokeswomen for Governor-elect Perdue. "We're hopeful that the Obama presidency will bring changes making it more difficult to drill off the coast."
Obama is poised to reverse some of Bush's executive actions. His transition team is reviewing Bush's recent expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling. President George H.W. Bush first signed the presidential drilling moratorium in 1990, and eight years later, President Bill Clinton extended it until 2012.
A list of executive orders Obama is considering reversing is not expected until after he names his Cabinet.
Reversing the executive order would remove from the debate drilling as a stand-alone issue, allowing the Obama administration to focus on a comprehensive energy plan that may include limited drilling, said former Rep. Leon E. Panetta, the author of the 1982 congressional ban, which Congress regularly renewed until this year.
Reinstating the presidential moratorium would give the Obama administration leverage it needs to negotiate a broad energy package, he said.
"The political pressure is not going to go away," said Panetta, chief of staff to Clinton from 1994 to 1997, and head of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative. "Even with the price of gas going down, the Republicans are going to continue to beat the drum on this issue."