Saturday, April 28, 2007

U.S. Proposal Would Allow Oil Drilling Off Virginia; Five-Year Plan Would Also Open Alaskan, Gulf Waters
U.S. Proposal Would Allow Oil Drilling Off Virginia
Five-Year Plan Would Also Open Alaskan, Gulf Waters
By Steven Mufson and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers

The Interior Department will announce a proposal Monday to allow oil and gas drilling in federal waters near Virginia that are currently off-limits and permit new exploration in Alaska's Bristol Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, according to people who have seen or been told about drafts of the plan.

The department issued a news release yesterday that was lacking details but said that it had finished a five-year plan that will include a "major proposal for expanded oil and natural gas development on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf." Department officials declined to describe the plan.

Congress would still have to agree to open areas currently off-limits before any drilling could take place off Virginia's coast. Every year since 1982, after an oil spill off Santa Barbara, Calif., Congress has reaffirmed a moratorium on drilling off the nation's Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Last year, after a vigorous push by drilling advocates, Congress opened new waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Interior Department might still go ahead with environmental and geological seismic studies off Virginia, but the plan does not envision drilling there before 2011, according to a congressional source who saw an earlier version of the proposal. The sources who described the plan spoke on the condition of anonymity because they didn't want to compromise relationships with people who showed them drafts.

Environmental groups said yesterday that they were troubled by the idea of oil exploration and drilling so near the wildlife refuge on Assateague Island and in an area closely linked to the Chesapeake Bay. Some of the bay's best-known species, such as blue crabs and rockfish, migrate to the ocean.

Activists said that simply looking for oil and gas could cause environmental harm if waste products used to lubricate or cool drill bits are cast overboard. Such materials are often toxic, and could threaten marine life in the area, said Richard Charter of Defenders of Wildlife.

Richard Ayers of the environmental group Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper said he was concerned about development along the state's lightly populated Atlantic shoreline. He said he was worried that oil drilling would create boomtowns, a new influx of people and pollution.

The Virginia shore is dotted with barrier islands and lagoons, most of them largely unspoiled. The Virginia coast has been designated a World Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations, and a National Natural Landmark by the Interior Department.

"This is one of the few places on the East Coast that just never got developed," Ayers said. "A disturbance of any magnitude would be something the place hasn't seen since the '30s," when a hurricane hit the area.

Many drilling advocates say that the oil industry has had a good environmental record in the Gulf of Mexico and that the nation needs to develop domestic oil and gas reserves to bring down prices and reduce reliance on foreign oil.

Advocates of increased drilling have campaigned in several states, many of which are attracted to the prospect of negotiating shares of federal royalties. Bills endorsing more drilling have twice passed the Virginia legislature.

Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), said Kaine was "supportive of exploration to see what, if anything, is out there." But Hall said Kaine had received "assurances" from federal officials that the proposed exploration would not violate state law. Last year, the General Assembly and Kaine agreed on a bill to prohibit drilling within 50 miles of Virginia's shoreline.

One place that doesn't need approval from Congress is the area north of the Alaska Peninsula near the Aleutian Islands, known as Bristol Bay. Home to one of the world's largest salmon runs, according to the Sierra Club, Bristol Bay was not covered by the same ban on drilling.

President Bush used his executive power to lift the ban in January. Congress has 60 days to reimpose it, or else drilling preparations could start in Bristol Bay as soon as July 1.

Athan Manuel, offshore drilling expert at the Sierra Club, said, "We need to do more to drill in Detroit by finding more oil efficiency in our cars and trucks rather than drilling off of some of our most sensitive coasts that are important environmentally, but also economically in driving billion-dollar fishing and tourist industries."

Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.