Officials Monitoring Obama Plan To Drill Off Va. Coast

OCEAN CITY – President Obama announced this week a vast area off the mid-Atlantic coast totaling nearly three million acres could soon be open to offshore oil and natural gas drilling, bringing the domestic oil drilling debate within 50 miles of Ocean City and Assateague Island.

The president on Wednesday announced the proposal to open the vast area off the Virginia coast to oil and natural gas exploration as part of his larger energy strategy. The plan calls for leasing a 2.9 million acre swath of ocean off the coast of Virginia for oil and natural gas exploration and, eventually, excavation. The plan is part of a larger effort to wean the U.S. off foreign oil dependence by tapping the nation’s underutilized energy resources.

While few would argue with the concept, detractors are already lining up and many have already 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.

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

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan, speaking yesterday from a hurricane conference in Florida, said while the target area is largely off the coast of Virginia, it encompasses much of the mid-Atlantic area.

“From what I gather, the areas extend from New Jersey south and encompass most of the area off the mid-Atlantic coast,” he said. “It clearly bears close watching as this moves forward. I don’t think it’s something that’s on the radar screen today and the plans are very preliminary, but this is something we have to follow very closely. These types of endeavors certainly concern us because of all we have at stake with our ocean, the beaches and our natural resources.”

While Senator Ben Cardin agree the nation desperately needs a comprehensive energy strategy that will lessen the dependence on foreign oil, he said in a joint statement with Senator Barbara Mikulski drilling off the coast of Virginia is not the long-term answer.

“I applaud the president for putting forward such a plan that includes renewable sources, nuclear energy, and developing oil and gas resources on existing leases, but I object to expanding off-shore drilling,” the statement reads. “The oil companies already have over 60 million domestic acres of leased area that could be drilled today, but they sit idle. We need to explore and drill currently held lands before risking permanent damage to some of our nation’s most sensitive environmental areas, including the Chesapeake Bay.”

Assateague Coastal Trust Executive Director and Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips said on Wednesday the proposed plan comes at a time when serious momentum has been gained on exploring and implementing safe, clean and renewable energy sources.

“Oil has peaked and this is a short-term solution. Period,” she said. “This emphasizes the need for our country to seriously embrace and move forward with more sustainable energy resources. It will be interesting to see how those opposed to having to look at wind turbines offshore will react to the image of oil rigs offshore.”

Meehan agreed exploring energy alternatives, such as the proposed wind farm off the coast of Ocean City, is a more responsible approach.

“I really think we need to stay the course with the governor’s emphasis on renewable, sustainable energy,” he said. “I’m not sure offshore drilling within 50 miles or so of our coastline is a sustainable, long-term solution.”