April 28, 2017
By ROBERT ZULLO
Last year, when the U.S. Interior Department said it would not include lease sales for oil and gas drilling off the Atlantic Coast in its five-year program, Virginia environmental, restaurant and hospitality groups cheered.
President Donald Trump’s executive order Friday had them singing a different tune. It directs the new secretary of the interior to “give full consideration” to revising the schedule of proposed oil and gas lease sales to include “annual lease sales, to the maximum extent permitted by law,” including in the Atlantic.
“Tourists simply do not flock to stay in hotels next to oil-covered beaches, explore parks coated in black tar or eat in restaurants forced to serve seafood from across the globe because the local fisheries have vanished,” said Michael Town, president of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. “Putting the Atlantic back into play makes all of these horrible scenarios a possibility, which is why there was a moratorium in the first place. “
Laura Habr, a Virginia Beach restaurant owner, vice president of the city’s restaurant association and a member of the local resort advisory commission, was among the business leaders who marshaled opposition to the previous presidential administration’s consideration of selling drilling leases off the coast of Virginia. Habr also serves on the board of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast — it represents thousands of East Coast businesses and fishing families, and it opposes seismic testing and oil-and-gas leasing in the Atlantic. She pledged to keep fighting.
“Every administration has a right to come in and review the plan, but for us, there’s no benefit for the risk,” she said. “We just need to be loud and clear and let this new administration know: We still don’t want this.”
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has an office in Charlottesville, all blasted Trump’s order as a disaster waiting to happen.
But Miles Morin, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council, part of the American Petroleum Institute, said it could provide a big boost to Hampton Roads marine industries and make them less reliant on federal largesse.
Old surveys indicate that there are about 2.4 billion barrels of oil and 24.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Mid-Atlantic portion of the Outer Continental Shelf, which runs roughly from Virginia to Georgia. New technology for identifying reserves means those numbers could be understated, Morin said.
Though offshore drilling is relatively expensive and current crude prices — about $49 per barrel for West Texas Intermediate crude on Friday — might not make new investment offshore in Virginia attractive now, companies make long-term decisions when it comes to leases, he said.
“They’re looking 10 to 20 years in the future when they lease. For that reason, access is so important,” Morin said.
The industry has made great strides in safety since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, when a fatal explosion aboard the BP-leased rig in the Gulf of Mexico triggered the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history, Morin said. BP was unable to shut off the flow of oil from a well thousands of feet below the surface for 87 days, resulting in about 4 million barrels of oil fouling a giant swath of the Gulf of Mexico and its coast.
“As Americans, we are always innovating and we are always learning from our past,” Morin said. “The technology has improved dramatically; the regulators, their procedures have improved dramatically.”
Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who is vying former congressman Tom Perriello for the Democratic nomination for governor, attempted to bludgeon his opponent Tuesday with the news that Trump expected to sign the order, pointing out that Perriello had backed a Virginia offshore oil and gas lease while in Congress and had applauded former President Barack Obama’s attempt to open up Atlantic drilling a month before the BP disaster.
Remi Yamamoto, a spokeswoman for Perriello, said he now thinks Atlantic drilling “doesn’t make sense” given the prevalence of renewable and clean energy.
Republican gubernatorial front-runner Ed Gillespie “strongly supports developing Virginia’s offshore energy resources in an environmentally responsible manner,” adding it would mean new jobs, tax revenue and “greater energy security for our country,” spokeswoman Abbi Sigler said in a statement.
One of Gillespie’s opponents, Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, also supports it for the same reasons. The third GOP contender, state Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, said he has been pushing for surveys of the offshore potential of Virginia for years.
With the low price of oil and the advances in fracking, Wagner doesn’t see any economic benefits from drilling for the state anytime soon, barring a “sustained and dramatic increase in energy costs, which no one wants to see.”