OCEAN CITY – A federal plan to open a vast, three-million acre area off the coast of Virginia not far from Chincoteague and Assateague Island to offshore oil and natural gas drilling was ostensibly killed last week when the U.S. Senate voted not to lift a moratorium on the practice in many areas of the country in place since 1990.
The inclusion of the three-million acre site off the coast of Virginia is part of a larger proposal to expand offshore drilling in several areas around the U.S. including eight million additional acres in the Gulf of Mexico, 37 million acres off the coast of Alaska and five million more in the North Aleutian Basin. The intent of the plan was to expand domestic oil and natural gas production in an effort to wean the U.S. off foreign oil dependence.
The inclusion of the area off the coast of neighboring Virginia raised concerns locally when the plan was released earlier this year because of the site’s proximity to Ocean City and the mid-Atlantic coastline. The northern edge area targeted off the coast of Virginia would have been just 50 miles off the coast of Assateague and Ocean City and detractors worried the possibility of a massive oil and gas drilling presence off the coast nearby could threaten the environment and impact the local commercial and recreational fishing industries.
The proposed three million-acre site off Virginia would be equal to roughly 4,700 square-miles, which would be more than one third the size of the state of Maryland. To put it in local perspective, at around 695 square miles, all of Worcester County could fit in the area targeted off the coast of Virginia seven times. The target area in Virginia would consume much of the Washington Canyon, an area frequented by the local offshore fishing community, as well as much of the Norfolk Canyon to the south.
However, the inclusion of the area off the coast of Virginia was contingent on the lifting of a moratorium on oil and gas drilling off the mid-Atlantic coast in place since 1990. President George H. Bush implemented the moratorium in 1990 and President Bill Clinton extended it in 1998 to 2012.
Virginia officials, led by Senator John Warner, pushed for inclusion in the plan, citing an economic windfall for the state, and petitioned the U.S. Senate to lift the moratorium earlier this year. Under pressure from a variety of sources about the dangers of drilling for oil off the mid-Atlantic coast, Warner amended his bill to only allow drilling for natural gas, but the measure failed on a vote in the Senate, effectively killing the plan to drill off the Virginia coast.
The bill was defeated by a slim margin with 44 senators voting against the measure and 43 voting for it, but it would have needed the support of 60 senators to pass, under the two-thirds majority rule.
Senator Barbara Mikulski opposed the plan to expand oil and gas drilling not far from the Atlantic coast of Maryland and the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay from the beginning and was one of the senators who voted against the amended plan last week. Mikulski acknowledged the importance of reducing dependence on foreign energy sources, but said the potential risks outweighed any benefits.
“We must do what we can to help Americans deal with rising energy costs without opening up our coastlines to drilling,” she said. “I will continue to do what I can to protect these coastal areas, and the Chesapeake Bay, for future generations.”
Mikulski said she supported keeping the moratorium in place in order to protect environmental as well as economic interests in Maryland and throughout the mid-Atlantic region.
“The existing moratorium protects sensitive coastal and marine areas covering the entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts,” she said. “These areas not only include some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and coastlines, but also some of the world’s richest fishing grounds. We believe offshore drilling in our waters would put these areas at risk and consequently jeopardize our recreational, tourist, and fishing industries.”
Representatives from other states in the mid-Atlantic region were equally opposed to the prospect of opening the vast area off the coast of Virginia to offshore drilling. For example, New Jersey Senator John Lautenberg said federal efforts should be directed at expanding the use of alternative energy sources, which have gained momentum in recent months, instead of threatening coastal environments and economies with more drilling.
“Allowing drilling off the coast of Virginia puts New Jersey’s shores and wildlife at risk of contamination from oil spills and leakage,” he said. “We need to address the long-term problem of fuel production by investing in new, alternative fuels, rather than helping oil companies and endangering our public land, wildlife and health. America should be investing in alternative fuels, not looking for more places to drill off our coast.”
However, proponents of the plan suggest the potential economic and political benefits of the expanded domestic oil production far outweigh any remote environmental concerns. The new oil drilling facilities would be held to extreme environmental standards with fail-safe measures in place to prevent a disaster.