Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe pulled an about-face Thursday on his previous support for offshore oil drilling, saying that he now wants the Atlantic Ocean waters off his state excluded from an upcoming federal leasing program.
Citing primarily economic but also environmental concerns, McAuliffe said that with the Trump administration’s “reckless actions” regarding oil revenue-sharing with coastal states, coupled with proposed cuts to funding for regulatory environmental agencies, “Virginia is left with only one option.” He asked that the state not be included in a new five-year plan for leasing portions of the Outer Continental Shelf for energy development
In a letter to Kelly Hammerle, national program manager of the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a part of the Department of Interior, McAuliffe complained of the White House’s failure to enact a revenue-sharing agreement between the federal government, which has marine jurisdiction past three miles offshore, and Atlantic coastal states.
McAuliffe also criticized the Trump administration’s proposed repeal of the federal law spelling out how offshore leasing revenues should be shared with Gulf states, saying it’s “a clear indication that any new revenue-sharing arrangement between additional states is as unlikely as ever and is a nonstarter with the current administration.”
The Democratic governor wrote the BOEM official on Aug. 11, but only released the letter Thursday.
In May 2013, while campaigning for governor, McAuliffe backtracked on an earlier pledge to support only offshore development of natural gas reserves — which he considered safer — and joined Virginia’s two U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, also Democrats, in supporting offshore oil development.
“Terry has learned more about offshore drilling from experts in Virginia,” said McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin at the time. “He thinks that because of technological progress we can now do it in a responsible fashion.”
But that support came with the proviso that any earned income would be shared between the federal government and Virginia. Now, the same issue has spurred McAuliffe’s second change of position on the issue.
Offshore drilling in the Atlantic had been banned for decades until the Obama administration lifted it in early 2010, saying it was needed to boost the domestic fuel supply. The massive Gulf oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig began just a few months later, but it wasn’t until Obama’s final month in office that he reinstated the ban. His reversal came after Donald Trump had been elected on a pledge to unleash U.S. fossil fuel production. On April 28, President Trump signed an executive order overturning Obama’s drilling ban.
McAuliffe’s Aug. 11 letter makes it clear that environmental issues remain a secondary concern to financial matters, remarking only that the Trump administration was working to cut funding “from the very agencies that would be charged with protecting Virginia's coastal environment” if offshore leasing was permitted.
Nonetheless, McAuliffe has now joined a growing list of states and localities taking a stand against offshore oil. He had been urged to do so by groups like the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, an organization backed by 41,000 coastal businesses and half a million commercial fishing families from Maine to Florida, which opposes potential losses from offshore energy development to tourism, recreation and commercial.
Aside from the potential for catastrophic spills when oil is being drilled, the initial search for it beneath the ocean bottom also poses risks to whales and other marine mammals.
Energy companies use concussive seismic testing to bounce ground-penetrating sound waves off the ocean’s floor, and then interpret the findings to determine if oil or gas reserves are present. Each seismic test can affect an area of more than 2,500 square nautical miles, raising background noise levels to 260 decibels, approximating that of a grenade blast.
Scientists have learned that these tests, and similar sonic disruptions such as the powerful sonars of modern submarines, can harm the echolocation abilities of whales and other marine mammals to find their way in the water.