Waters off virginia, north carolina out of offshore drilling plan environment pilotonline.com e sampark electricity bill payment

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The decision by the Interior Department bureau to exclude the Atlantic from the 2017-2022 offshore leasing program was lambasted by oil industry leaders. They called the turnaround politically motivated and contrary to the nation’s stated wishes to reduce reliance on foreign energy sources.

Environmentalists and tourism industry leaders in coastal communities were thrilled and relieved, however. They built a political firestorm against drilling that was hard for President Barack Obama’s administration to ignore. More than 90 communities in Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia – including both counties on the Eastern Shore – had adopted resolutions in opposition.

Jacqueline Savitz, vice president of the environmental group Oceana, called Tuesday’s decision “a giant step for our oceans, for coastal economies and for mitigating climate change.” She said it marks “the shift to a new energy paradigm, where clean energy replaces fossil fuels, and where we can avoid the worst impacts of decades of our carbon dioxide emissions.”

Still, even in the hours leading up to the announcement, anti-drilling activists had braced for defeat. Oceana was among groups that had scheduled a mock oil spill in Richmond on Tuesday, anticipating a protest. It turned into a celebration.

The U.S. waters of the Atlantic have been off limits to oil and gas exploration for decades. But the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management began making plans about ten years ago for a 2011 sale of a lease covering roughly 2.9 million acres off Virginia.

That sale was scrapped by Obama after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Virginia and other Atlantic states weren’t even considered when the bureau put together its current five-year leasing program, which ends in 2017.

Invites from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the governors of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia led to their inclusion in the review. McAuliffe said his support for drilling was contingent on Virginia sharing in revenue flowing to the federal government from offshore oil and gas operations. The state’s U.S. senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, hinged their support on that as well.

Jewell said that when bureau officials dug into weighing the benefits of drilling against the “conflicts with national defense, economic activities such as fishing and tourism, and opposition from many local communities,” the equation turned negative.

Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement that the decision “appeases extremists who seek to stop oil and natural gas production.” He said it will “increase the cost of energy for American consumers and close the door for years to creating new jobs, new investments and boosting energy security.”

But industry and environmental groups have argued whether drilling would be a net economic gain for coastal areas like Hampton Roads. The Southern Environmental Law Center commissioned a study last year that concluded new jobs in the oil and gas sector would be offset by losses in tourism, commercial fishing, aquaculture and other fields, even more so in the event of a major oil spill.

Kaine said he was “particularly struck by the material objections of the Department of Defense to the incompatibility of drilling with naval operations off Virginia’s coast.” He said the Pentagon has been “relatively quiet during this public debate and has never shared their objections with me before.”

Warner said he was “looking forward to a full briefing” from the Navy and NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore on their objections to drilling. NASA has said it is concerned that oil platforms would interfere with rocket launches from Wallops.

McAuliffe issued a statement calling the federal decision “an opportunity to work with the Department of Defense to address the concerns they have raised, and to ensure that any offshore energy exploration is coupled with a revenue sharing agreement that benefits” the state.

The Navy and NASA have long expressed concerns about potential oil and gas operations in the Atlantic, particularly off Virginia. Federal officials in charge of the offshore energy program had largely brushed aside those worries when a lease off the state’s coast was previously contemplated.

This time around, the Defense Department provided information showing that “the entire proposed lease area is conflicted” with military operations, said Abigail Ross Hopper, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. “More of the area actually is conflicted now” than in 2010, she said at the news conference Tuesday.

Asked to elaborate, Navy spokesman Kenneth Hess said in a statement: “While offshore oil and gas development can be compatible with the Navy mission, we need to ensure that as the footprint of our weapon systems changes over time, we will be able to train with and operate those systems effectively into the foreseeable future without creating undue risk to our sailors, other ocean users, or offshore oil and gas investments.”

How long Tuesday’s decision will stand is uncertain. Almost immediately after wrapping up the 2017-2022 offshore program later this year, federal officials will begin work on a 2022-2027 plan. A new president will be in office when that plan’s first draft is issued, and he or she may set a different course for energy development. Even if that doesn’t happen, more five-year plans and more debates about drilling’s potential and pitfalls likely will take place in the decades ahead.