Fed Takes Formal Step Toward Offshore Oil Drilling

OCEAN CITY – Federal officials last week initiated the first steps in a process to potentially lease nearly three million acres off the coast of Virginia for offshore oil and natural gas drilling, a process which, if it comes to fruition, could bring the domestic oil drilling debate within 50 miles of Ocean City and Assateague Island.

The U.S. Department of the Interior, through its Mineral Management Services (MMS) agency, last week published a Call for Information and Interest for the 2.9 million acre tract off the Atlantic coast of Virginia, essentially gauging private sector interest in leasing the wide swath of the ocean off the mid-Atlantic coast for oil and natural gas exploration and, eventually, excavation. MMS estimates the area may contain as many as 130 million barrels of oil and another 1.14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The Call of Information/Notice of Intent is the first step in what will likely be a long information gathering, evaluation and public participation process. Called the Virginia Lease Sale 220, the roughly three million acre area of open ocean could be leased to a private sector operation as soon as 2011 should the complicated review and approval process be completed.

The announcement of a potential oil and gas drilling operation off the coast of Virginia is one of the first since President George W. Bush announced in July he was lifting a decades-long moratorium on offshore drilling in an effort to increase domestic production and begin to wean the country off of its foreign oil dependency. Shortly thereafter, Congress approved the measure by essentially allowing the moratorium, which had been in place since 1983, to expire. Since then, the issue has heated up again, most notably during the presidential campaign when “drill baby, drill” became a mantra for Republican candidate John McCain.

While the proposal could help achieve the desired results in terms of reducing the country’s dependence on foreign energy sources, critics from one end of the country to the other have bashed the idea 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.

On the heels of the announcement to seek the level of interest in leasing the designated area off the coast of Virginia not far from Maryland’s coast including Ocean City and Assateague, several environmental groups have come out swinging against the plan. For example, Environment America oceans advocate Michael Gravitz this week criticized the proposal for its perceived lack of forward thinking.

“In moving to open the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to oil drilling today, the Bush administration is clinging to energy policies of the past that were soundly rejected by voters less than two weeks ago,” he said “From President-elect Barack Obama on down the ballot, the candidates who won were talking about a clean energy future, including wind, solar, tidal and wave energy, and energy efficiency.”

However, federal officials defended the proposal, suggesting tapping the potentially vast oil reserves off the nation’s coasts, including Virginia, could be part of larger, more balanced energy solution for the country.

“The U.S. needs all types of energy resources, both conventional and renewable, in order to meet our future needs,” said Assistant Secretary of Land and Minerals Management at Interior C. Stephen Allred.  “Production from domestic resources makes us more secure and less vulnerable to future energy crises, and increases our security and economic well-being.  The tremendous oil shale resources that we have in the U.S., containing several times the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia, can be a vital component of that secure future.”

With the prospect of offshore oil rigs just 50 miles off the coast of Ocean City, local officials are certainly keeping a close eye on the situation. Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said this week despite the fact the proposal to open the vast area off the coast of Virginia is in the early preliminary stages, resort officials are already monitoring the plan.

“It’s something I’m obviously aware of,” he said. “It is really in its infancy, but as it moves forward, we open to be included in any open dialogue to make sure our interests and concerns are known. I do foresee us having conversations with our congressmen and senators to find out just what this might mean for us.”