McAuliffe wants Virginia out of federal offshore drilling program

Gov. Terry McAuliffe has filed a request with the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management requesting that Virginia be exempted from a newly revised program to open up the East Coast to offshore drilling.

In a letter dated Aug. 11, which was made public on Thursday, McAuliffe cited both economic and environmental concerns in asking Kelly Hammerle, the BOEM national program manager, to exclude Virginia’s coastal areas from the 2019-2024 National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing program.

The bureau, an agency within the Department of the Interior, filed a request for information, with a 45-day public comment period, on the replacement for the current 2017-2022 program on July 3.

“A primary concern that must be satisfied in order for Virginia to be included in the leasing area is a revenue-sharing agreement between participating Atlantic coast states and the federal government,” McAuliffe wrote. “Today we are no closer to resolving this issue than when I became governor.”

McAuliffe has joined North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, in opposing the new offshore drilling plan. Last month Cooper issued a strong statement that concluded, “I can sum it up in four words: Not off our coast.”

McAuliffe’s letter also cited concerns about President Donald Trump’s proposed budgetary cuts to “the very agencies that are responsible for ensuring compliance with statutory safeguards and environmental protections.”

The revised plan calls for a more ambitious approach to offshore drilling. The 2017-2022 program, initiated under President Barack Obama, noted that the U.S. is already close to achieving a significant level of energy independence and therefore does not need to open up new coastal regions for drilling.

Opponents of offshore drilling have cited environmental concerns, and have suggested the oil rigs off the coast would affect tourism in a region that relies heavily on beach traffic.

Sierra Weaver, a North Carolina attorney who heads up the Southern Environmental Law Center’s coast and wetlands program, said the economic and environmental issues “cannot be separated.” She said she hopes Trump will show the same consideration to the governors’ requests, as previous administrations have.

“Gov. McAuliffe is joining with North Carolina and South Carolina in creating something of a united front to protect the Southeast coast,” Weaver said. “The Obama administration decided before leaving office that the cost-benefit analysis did not favor drilling at this point. That’s still the case. When you consider the cost and the benefit, it’s not worth the risk.”

By contrast, the Virginia Petroleum Council sent a letter to the Department of the Interior — co-signed by more than a dozen different energy-related companies — urging more leasing and exploration of offshore drilling opportunities off Virginia’s coast. In a written statement, petroleum council executive director Miles Morin said the companies are mindful of the need for environmental safeguards and the importance of state revenue sharing, but believe offshore drilling is important and safe for the region.

“Shutting Virginia off to this economic engine would be short-sighted,” Morin said. “The existing Hampton Roads port has the infrastructure, skilled workers, and maritime industries like shipbuilding and engineering, that can benefit Virginia consumers and workers, help strengthen our national security and provide the American energy our nation demands.”

Thursday marked the close of a 45-day period in which the public was invited to comment on the new 2019-2024 program that was filed in July. In assessing the Atlantic coast, that program cites “significant oil and gas resource potential” and recommends an update on current geologic and geophysical information for the region with an eye toward increased offshore drilling.

Holtzclaw can be reached by phone at 757-928-6479 or on Twitter @mikeholtzclaw.

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