Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell has pledged to make the state the "energy… (Steve Helber / Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — Virginia could become the first state on the Eastern Seaboard to open its coast to energy exploration since a decades-old federal drilling ban expired more than a year ago.
The new Republican governor, Robert McDonnell, pledged to make Virginia the "energy capital of the East Coast" at his swearing-in last month. The state's Democratic senators, Jim Webb and Mark R. Warner, are also urging the Obama administration to begin selling leases next year for drilling 50 miles offshore.
"Virginia is eager to get started," McDonnell said in a letter to the Department of the Interior, portraying the drilling as a way to aid economic recovery and generate billions of dollars for the financially strapped state, including money for transportation improvements.
"We may have this potential bank account sitting out there," said Gerry Scimeca, an aide to state Delegate Ron A. Villanueva, a Republican and the sponsor of a pro-drilling resolution approved Wednesday by the Virginia General Assembly on a 69-28 vote.
The lease sale would be the first on the Atlantic coast since 1983. New drilling has been prohibited in much of the nation's coastal waters since the 1980s, largely in response to a devastating 1969 oil spill in California, off Santa Barbara. Congress let the ban lapse in late 2008 as high gasoline prices became a hot political issue.
The bipartisan drive to open the Virginia coast to drilling puts the Obama administration in a tough position.
On one hand, President Obama has said that he is open to limited coastal drilling as part of a broader energy compromise. "We're willing to make some tough decisions on issues like offshore drilling, so long as we protect coastlines and communities," Obama told a group of governors this month. On the other hand, the drilling proposal has raised concerns from NASA and from environmentalists.
The space agency, which operates a launching facility on the Virginia shore, says drilling would pose a safety risk because of the rigs' proximity to where rocket components fall into the Atlantic.
"You'd think 50 miles out would not be a problem," NASA spokesman Keith Koehler said. "But for us, it is. It's right in the middle of our launch range."
Joseph F. Bouchard, a former Democratic state legislator and retired Navy captain, said the proposed drilling site also is in the middle of an important Navy training range. "The economic loss from Navy and NASA activities having to be relocated would be greater than any possible economic benefit to Virginia from oil drilling," he said.
Environmentalists say they fear that drilling could harm the fishing industry, hinder efforts to bring back Chesapeake Bay's fragile blue crab and deal a blow to tourism in the region.
"Because of complicated ocean currents . . . a spill off Virginia could wash onto the beaches of all states along the Atlantic coast, from Cape Cod to North Carolina," the Southern Environmental Law Center and other environmental groups warned in a letter to the Interior Department.
Virginia's senators plan to push legislation that would allow the state to share in drilling royalties, as Gulf Coast states do. But environmentalists say it is far from certain that Congress, facing its own massive budget deficit, will be willing to share. Some environmentalists are pushing to put wind turbines off the coast rather than oil rigs.
Dan Naatz, vice president of federal resources and political affairs for the Independent Petroleum Assn. of America, said the industry was encouraged by Virginia officials' support. But because the Interior Department has been "less than vigorous" in promoting new development of fossil fuels than it has, say, solar and wind power, he said, "I think we're going to be guardedly optimistic."
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is expected to decide about the lease sale soon.
About 130 million barrels of oil and more than 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are thought to be within the proposed 2.9-million-acre drilling site. But industry officials say no one can be sure how much is there because no exploration has taken place for decades.
The U.S. consumes about 20 million barrels of oil a day and is projected to use about 62 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day this year.