Interior unveils its plan to drill off of Virginia

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration moved Monday to open the Virginia coast to oil drilling, a step that environmentalists warned could lead to the weakening of the long-standing ban on new energy exploration off much of the U.S. coast.

That ban was inspired by a devastating oil spill off Santa Barbara in 1969. But high gas prices and concern about U.S. dependence on foreign oil have made pro-drilling forces more hopeful of persuading Congress, even with its Democratic majority, to relax the drilling ban.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne unveiled a five-year plan Monday that calls for offering drilling leases in a Virginia coastal area that has been off-limits since the 1980s, a move that requires presidential and congressional approval. He also proposed expanding drilling off Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico.

The same day, gas prices hit a nationwide average price of $2.971 for a gallon of self-serve regular, up 10.2 cents from a week ago, according to the Energy Department. California prices rose 4.3 cents to set a new record-high average of $3.359 a gallon.


Environmental groups said they would lobby Congress to block drilling off Virginia as well as an area off Alaska that President Bush previously moved to open to exploration.

Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.) vowed to use his position on the House Appropriations Committee’s Interior-related subcommittee to thwart the plan. “President Bush and Vice President Cheney are definitely addicted to oil, and it’s up to Congress to enter them into rehab,” he said.

Except for parts of the Gulf Coast and areas off Alaska, the nation’s coast has long been under drilling moratoriums.

The Interior Department proposes to permit drilling more than 50 miles off Virginia in 2011. It also seeks new drilling in Bristol Bay, an area on the west side of the Alaska Peninsula north of the Aleutian Islands that was put off-limits to new drilling in 1989 after the Exxon Valdez spill.

Bush lifted the drilling ban there this year, but an effort is underway in Congress to restore the ban.

Environmentalists describe Bristol Bay as a salmon-rich area critical to the fishing industry and an important habitat for marine life, including endangered species.

The administration also proposed expanding drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, including areas opened by the Republicancontrolled Congress in one of its last acts last year.

Administration officials were hopeful of opening the area off Virginia, in part because the state’s Democratic governor, Timothy M. Kaine, last year signed legislation supporting natural gas exploration, provided it was at least 50 miles offshore.

Kaine said in a statement Monday: “Virginia law stipulates that we are open only to natural gas exploration -- that is, we do not agree at this time to natural gas production or oil exploration or production.”

Industry groups welcomed the Interior announcement but said they would lobby to open more coastal waters to drilling.

Kempthorne said the administration’s plan would provide “greater economic and energy security for America and can be accomplished in a safe and environmentally sound manner.”

Overall, the new drilling off Virginia and Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico could produce 10 billion barrels of oil and 45 trillion cubic feet of natural gas over 40 years, Kempthorne said.

The U.S. consumes about 20 million barrels of oil a day.