Federal Offshore Drilling Plan for Virginia Opposed

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia, January 13, 2009 (ENS) – The Southern Environmental Law Center, SELC, on behalf of itself and three other organizations, has called on the U.S. Department of Interior to abandon plans to open the Virginia coast to oil or gas drilling.

In a letter to the Minerals Management Service Monday, the law center detailed the risk to the environment and coastal communities from drilling and said those harms “far outweigh the benefit of extracting the relatively low amounts of fossil fuel from the ocean depths off Virginia.”

The federal agency announced plans to offer a lease sale shortly after Congress lifted a quarter-century moratorium on offshore drilling in the Atlantic in late September 2008.

Virginia Beach is vulnerable to impacts of offshore drilling. (Photo by G. Suave)

The law center wrote the letter on behalf of itself, the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, Virginia League of Conservation Voters, and Environment Virginia. It was submitted as part of the public comment period on the scope of a proposed environmental impact statement.

Virginia State Delegate Brian Moran also sent comments to Minerals Management Service Monday rejecting the idea of drilling off Virginia’s coast. Moran is a candidate for Governor of Virginia in the 2009 elections.

The current governor, Tim Kaine, has expressed objections to the agency’s plans. The Minerals Management Service has said it is acting at the behest of Governor Kaine. But in a letter to the agency in December 2008, the governor wrote, “The actions … to start the leasing process could lead to drilling and production of natural gas and oil, and, for that reason, do not comport with Virginia’s offshore energy policies.”

Congressman Jim Moran of Virginia, a Democrat who has received a 100 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters, also opposes the offshore lease proposal.

The area is used by the U.S. Navy, which also has objected to the proposed lease sale.

The area at issue begins 50 miles off the coast and extends eastward about 183 miles, covering approximately three million acres.

The Minerals Management Service estimates the area contains 130 million barrels of oil, which it estimates would be consumed in roughly six days, and 1,140 billion cubic feet of gas, which would be used up in 18 days.

SELC compared the “meager” amount of recoverable oil and gas with the “potentially drastic impacts of drilling.” The law center says the drilling would be harmful to important marine species, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale and humpback whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and migratory birds.

The proposed drilling could threaten the $9 billion commercial and recreational fishing industry and the $107 billion tourism industry from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras, the law center said in its letter.

The onshore infrastructure that would be built to store, process and transport the oil and gas would threaten environmental, recreational and scenic resources in Virginia’s coastal communities, the SELC letter points out.

“Scientists at a recent MMS workshop concluded that insufficient research is available to predict the impact of drilling on a broad range of resources, including fisheries and endangered species,” said SELC attorney Deborah Murray.

Climate change could worsen impacts on the ocean ecosystem, compounding the impacts of drilling offshore, the law center argues.

“Climate change is already causing stress on the wildlife that make the ocean so special in this area – the whales, dolphins and fish,” said SELC attorney Kay Slaughter. “Virginia Beach is rated tenth in the world in terms of expected impacts from climate change; drilling would only exacerbate this situation.”

SELC proposed that Minerals Management Service seek additional funding for environmental studies on this leasing decision.

The law center says offshore wind power would be a better way to generate energy from Virginia’s coastal resources, and it asks the federal agency to integrate offshore wind power into its five year plan for the area.

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