January 25, 2018
Councilmember John Uhrin said the state of Florida is anxious to acquire as many of Virginia’s military assets as possible.
VIRGINIA BEACH — If one aircraft carrier was moved from Naval Station Norfolk to a different military base in another state, Hampton Roads would lose $1 billion in economic activity.
The likelihood of that happening, and potentially other pieces of Hampton Roads’ military installations following suit, might be on the rise due to a new plan that once again puts Virginia on the map as a possible site for offshore drilling, said Virginia Beach City Councilman John Uhrin.
“Virginia has a very unique situation in terms of [offshore drilling’s] impact to current military operations that is not shared with many of the other states where oil exploration is a possibility,” Uhrin said.
The new program was announced on Jan. 4 by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. While current regulations mark 94 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf as off limits for offshore drilling, the new plan would make more than 90 percent of that area available for oil exploration, Port City Daily reported.
“Responsibly developing our energy resources on the Outer Continental Shelf in a safe and well-regulated way is important to our economy and energy security, and it provides billions of dollars to fund the conservation of our coastlines, public lands and parks,” the Department of Interior press release said.
The announcement came nearly two years after the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, removed coastlines spanning from Virginia to Georgia from a preexisting offshore drilling plan.
The Commonwealth’s removal from the plan came in the wake of more than 1 million comments, 23 public meetings and conversations with elected officials, industry members and nonprofit organizations, Southside Daily reported in March 2016.
“We heard from many corners that now is not the time to offer oil and gas leasing off the Atlantic Coast,” former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a news release. “When you factor in conflicts with national defense, economic activities such as fishing and tourism, and opposition from many local communities, it simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with any lease sales in the coming five years.”
DOD study shows offshore drilling could impact military operations
When the March 2016 announcement came, Virginia Beach City Council had freshly transitioned its public statement on offshore drilling from one of support to a neutral stance.
By June 20, 2017, Virginia Beach leaders voted on a resolution to formally oppose offshore drilling on the Commonwealth’s coastlines. Norfolk City Council followed suit a month later voting in favor of opposing oil exploration in Virginia’s waters.
Uhrin, who originally supported the possibility of offshore drilling in Virginia, said that he and other members of Virginia Beach City Council became increasingly skeptical of the benefits the Commonwealth would stand to gain from oil exploration as they received more information about the risks associated with the practice.
Key to their change of heart was an October 2015 study released by the Department of Defense that showed, if implemented, offshore drilling would likely have a severe impact on the military’s operations in Hampton Roads.
“We discovered that the military had some very serious concerns about their ability to continue to operate their training off the coast of Virginia,” Uhrin said.
The DOD study evaluated the military’s mission compatibility with areas that were originally proposed for the offshore drilling program. It then ranked those areas using a color-coded system to show where oil exploration would be possible and impossible in order for the military to continue operating in potentially affected locations.
According to the DOD, offshore drilling could not happen in any unrestricted way in any part of the Mid-Atlantic region without potentially impacting military operations.
“The entire coast of Virginia has been identified as having some impacts,” Uhrin said.
In some areas — including much of the water directly off of the coast of Virginia Beach — the DOD concluded that there could be no offshore drilling activity at all without impeding military operations.
A DOD map shows that much of the water directly off of Wallops Island in the Eastern Shore spanning to the Outer Banks of North Carolina was color-coded as red, meaning that no oil or gas activity could occur without impact to the military.
In some areas further away from the shore, the DOD reported that no offshore drilling surface structures could be built.
Small patches of water space between Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore, was color-coded yellow, meaning that offshore drilling might be able to occur with site specific stipulations. That classification became more prevalent as the water moved further away from the Virginia coastline and south toward North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
A 2015 Department of Defense report found that offshore drilling plans often weren’t compatible with the military’s mission in the mid-Atlantic region.
The DOD wrote that a yellow classification meant the area is associated with ballistic missile defense training, long weapons release and expanded weapons hazard patterns, according to the study.
“These activities may or may not require site-specific stipulations and this determination will be made on a case-by-case basis,” the report reads.
Virginia requests exemption from offshore drilling plan
Not every Atlantic state is a possible location for offshore drilling.
Zinke tweeted on Jan. 9 that after having a meeting with Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, he planned to remove the state from the offshore drilling plan.
On Jan. 11, Gov. Ralph Northam penned a letter to Zinke requesting that Virginia be given the same exemption.
“I grew up on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and can tell you firsthand that the Chesapeake Bay and the Commonwealth’s ocean and coastal resources are every bit as ecologically and economically valuable as those in Florida, a state that was recently exempted from the leasing plan,” Northam wrote. “I am encouraged by the decision to exempt Florida from the plan, and respectfully ask that the same exemption be made for the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Uhrin said that at the Virginia Beach City Council session on Feb. 6, he and at least eight other elected officials plan to draft a memo asking President Donald Trump to give Virginia “the same protections he’s given the state of Florida.”
Uhrin said the move comes as he and others on city council worry about the future of the military. He believes not being exempt from the plan could put Virginia in a position where the military is unable to expand in Hampton Roads, and introduce the potential of the area losing its current military assets.
“The state of Florida is very anxious to acquire as many of our military assets as possible,” Uhrin said. “They are continuing to make an argument that an aircraft carrier should move to Florida … The economic impact of an aircraft carrier moving from Hampton Roads — it would be $1 billion a year in economic activity, and that impacts everybody.”
“The reality is, if we don’t get the same protections then our entire state will be put at a disadvantage in terms of not just the growth and stability of our current industries, but put us at a real opportunity to lose the assets we have,” Uhrin added.
The newly proposed offshore drilling plan is not yet a done deal.
In his Jan. 11 letter, Northam noted that although United States residents will be able to speak openly about offshore drilling during a public comment period that will last until March 9, Virginians will only have the opportunity to do so at one meeting, which will be held more than 100 miles away from the coast in Richmond.
“BOEM has scheduled only one public meeting on this proposed action in Virginia, nearly 100 miles from the coastal communities that would most feel its impacts,” he wrote. “On behalf of the Virginians I was elected to serve, I request the addition of sessions in Hampton Roads and on the Eastern Shore to allow those interested the ability to voice the concerns of their communities.”