Friday, May 4 – Concerns Raised About Proposed Offshore Oil Drilling

OCEAN CITY – Federal officials this week announced a plan to open a vast three million acre area off the coast of Virginia not far from Chincoteague and Assateague Island to offshore oil drilling, raising concerns locally about potential environmental impacts and the inclusion of some of the fertile fishing grounds off the coast of the resort.

The inclusion of the site off the coast of Virginia is part of a larger proposal to expand offshore oil drilling in several areas around the U.S. including eight million new 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 is to expand domestic oil production in an effort to wean the U.S. off foreign oil dependence.

The combined areas would yield an estimated 10 billion barrels of oil and 45 trillion cubic feet of gas over the next 40 years. To put the numbers in perspective, the projected 10 billion barrels is equal to the amount of oil imported by the U.S. from the Persian Gulf over a 10-year period, and the 45 trillion cubic feet of gas is enough to meet the natural gas needs of every residential customer in the country for the next 10 years.

While the proposal could help achieve the desired results in terms of reducing the country’s dependence on foreign energy sources, but critics from one end of the country to the other are bashing the plan for a variety of reasons, most of which go hand in hand. Many have raised concerns about erecting massive offshore oil rigs in ecologically sensitive areas while others are concerned the plan signals an expansion of non-renewable fossil-based energy sources while there is a growing effort to move toward renewable, sustainable energy sources.

Locally, there is reason for concern on several levels. The area targeted off the coast of Virginia is just 50 miles off the coast of Assateague and, by extension, the Maryland coast including Ocean City. There are considerable 25- and 50-mile buffers in place between the front edge of the target area and the Maryland and Virginia coastline, and the plan also includes a no obstruction zone at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, but the proposed offshore drilling area is still a little too close for comfort for some in the area.

For example, the Maryland Coastal Bays Program is keeping a close eye on the proposal, and although the news released this week is fairly fresh and all of the details are not yet available, MBCP officials voiced some concern this week.

“We haven’t reviewed all of the details, and so we haven’t officially weighed in on this yet, but I can’t imagine we won’t have an official position on it and it will probably be negative, based on what we know so far,” said MCBP Public Outreach Coordinator Dave Wilson. “There are so many question marks about this, I’m not sure where to begin.”

Wilson said one of his chief concerns is the continued reliance on fossil fuels when so much progress has been made recently on renewable alternatives.

“We have a lot of concerns, not the least of which is an expansion of fossil fuel production,” he said. “We’ve made a lot of strides in the other direction and this seems to fly in the face of that.”

Like Wilson, Delegate James Mathias (D-38B) has not carefully reviewed the details of the proposal, but also like Wilson, he raised some concerns about it this week.

“At first flush, this doesn’t appear to be something I would be in favor of,” he said. “We need to continue to look for renewable energy sources.”

Beyond the issue of global warming and increased fossil fuel consumption is the threat of a major mishap in the waters off the coast of the resort areas in Virginia and Maryland. No less important is the potential impact on the fertile fishing grounds off the coast.

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.

“We know how important those assets are for us environmentally and economically,” said Mathias. “We also know how the hazards of a spill could affect those assets.”

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. Federal officials point out how the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico withstood everything Hurricane Katrina dished out without incident and also pointed out there is a far greater risk of an oil spill with tanker ships transporting oil than any risks associated with state-of-the-art oil rigs.

The proposed site off the coast of Virginia does face some serious obstacles. The president would have to reverse a 1998 withdraw from the area and Congress would have to discontinue a moratorium on drilling off the mid-Atlantic coast before any leases could be offered.