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Offshore drilling possible for Virginia?

The Obama administration’s proposed five-year draft plan designating potential areas of the Outer Continental Shelf for future offshore oil and gas drilling includes a swath of the Atlantic stretching from Virginia to the Florida border.

U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell unveiled the long-awaited proposal Tuesday, saying it reflects the president’s “all of the above” approach to domestic energy production.

“It takes a balanced approach to oil and gas development,” Jewell said in a conference call with reporters. “Making available nearly 80 percent of the undiscovered, technically recoverable resources on the entire Outer Continental Shelf, while protecting areas that are simply too special to develop.”

The region is one of 14 potential lease sale areas included in the draft plan and the only one in the Atlantic — 10 others are in the Gulf of Mexico and three more off Alaska. The Pacific was excluded from the plan because of strong opposition from coastal states there.

The draft strategy was prepared by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and covers the period from 2017 to 2022. Jewell said it is far from final and could still undergo significant changes — with lease sale areas possibly shrinking or even removed entirely — as they gather additional science and weigh the preferences and concerns of a host of stakeholders.

For Virginia, those stakeholders could include state and local officials, the Department of Defense, NASA, the energy industry, commercial and recreational fishermen, environmentalists and the general public.

State leaders such Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have long supported offshore drilling as part of a comprehensive domestic energy strategy. Polls show a majority of Virginians do, too.

After the announcement, the governor’s office released a statement calling it a “positive step.”

“If we proceed in a smart and safe way,” McAuliffe said, “we can unlock gas, oil and wind assets offshore while protecting our environment.”

Related: New federal offshore drilling plans are coming

Jewell said draft framers strongly considered the input of state legislatures and governors when deciding where to site the lease sale areas.

In the Atlantic, they carved out a 50-mile coastal buffer to cut down on potential conflicts with Defense Department activities, fishing activities, offshore wind projects, wildlife and visual impacts.

But conservation groups in Virginia wasted no time Tuesday in opposing the plan.

Kim Coble, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, issued a statement that offshore drilling poses “unjustifiable risks to the bay, its living resources, the tourism economy and the many jobs dependent on clean water.”

Mike Tidwell, head of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, accused the Obama administration of “turning its back” on the lessons of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which dumped millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico after a catastrophic oil rig explosion and fire.

And Jacqueline Savitz of the international advocacy group Oceana said the plan “could destroy our coastal economies for decades to come.”

Jewell said her agency has done a huge amount of work since the Deepwater disaster “to understand what happened there, to ensure that we are updating our standards … and the chance of it happening again is significantly reduced.”

Janice Schneider, assistant secretary for Land and Minerals Management at DOI, said investigations into Deepwater resulted in hundreds of recommendations to ensure that oil and gas exploration and development is done safely and responsibly.

She said a proposed rule is in development to update and enhance requirements for blowout preventer systems, including critical reforms in well design and control, casing cement, real-time monitoring and subsea containment.

But before they can decide if drilling is right for the mid-Atlantic, said Jewell, they simply need more information — current data on the area’s oil and gas reserves are about 30 years old. They also need to assess whether important infrastructure would be available to prepare the region for development.

“For those reasons,” said Jewell, “the potential lease sale is proposed late in the five-year window to allow time to develop and collect critical scientific information.”

The lease sale area is the maximum that could be considered for offshore drilling, she said. During the five-year period, as information is gathered about energy potential, environmental impacts, competing interests, public opinion and other factors, the area could be narrowed.

“The lease sale won’t happen — if it happens at all — until the end of the period,” Jewell said. “And we’ll have good information or better information by then on which to make that decision.”

Schneider said a series of about 20 public meetings will be held during the next several months to gather input, beginning in a couple of weeks.

After public comment and environmental review, a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Proposed Program will be prepared. After that will come a Final EIS and Proposed Final Program.

For more information, go to boem.gov/five-year-program.

 

This article was written by Tamara Dietrich from Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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