The Obama administration’s proposal to open parts of the Atlantic Coast and other areas to offshore oil drilling has drawn more than 50,000 public comments that show, among other things, a split among Bay state leaders over the idea.
The Interior Department in January proposed a five-year lease program to run from 2017 to 2022 that would open an area from the Virginia-Maryland state line south to Georgia, as well as new areas along the Gulf Coast and off Alaska, for oil and gas development on the outer continental shelf — an area of federal jurisdiction that begins at three nautical miles offshore and extends in most areas for 200 miles.
The proposed Atlantic leases are beyond a 50-mile coastal buffer intended to protect sensitive resources and reduce conflicts with Department of Defense operations. Nonetheless, the idea has drawn strong criticism from environmental groups who say it poses unacceptable risks for aquatic creatures, including important Chesapeake Bay species.
Bay state political leaders have split on the proposal. Virginia’s Gov. Terry McAuliffe endorsed oil development, saying in his comment letter that the state is “actively involved in preparing Virginia for the offshore oil and gas industry…Our ports and workforce are ready.”
Maryland Gov. Lawrence Hogan said in a statement that he supports an “‘all of the above’ approach to making energy more affordable…as long as these efforts can be accomplished in an environmentally safe way.”
Though no lease sales are proposed off Maryland, state Attorney General Brian Frosh warned, “the dangers associated with oil exploration in the Atlantic Region are at best unknown, and at worst, devastating.”
Former Maryland Gov. Martin J. O’Malley also criticized the draft. While governor, O’Malley successfully lobbied to have Maryland’s offshore waters removed from the plan.
In the U.S. Senate, Virginia’s two Democratic senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, said they support “responsible development” of coastal energy resources, while Maryland’s two Democratic senators, Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, have both opposed the proposal.
Proponents cite new offshore energy development safety regulations recently announced by the Obama administration that would require more effective methods to prevent blowouts as well as other technologies to reduce the risk of oil spills.
Environmental groups have lined up strongly against Atlantic exploration and development, citing the lack of safety in the industry and impacts to ecosystems in the event of a spill, including the barrier islands off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia, deep water canyons and the marine organisms dependent on these systems, from the endangered Atlantic right whale to deep-sea corals.
“The introduction of drilling and onshore industrialization into this relatively pristine region would fundamentally transform the mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic coast,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Environmental groups contend the waters off the mid-Atlantic coast are intimately connected with the Chesapeake, with about half of the Bay’s water flushed daily by coastal waters. Species important to the Bay’s ecosystem, including blue crab, menhaden, shad, striped bass and sturgeon, spend portions of their life cycles in coastal waters. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation warned that an oil spill could destroy an entire class of blue crabs, whose larvae can float miles into the ocean after they are spawned at the mouth of the Bay.
Oil and gas exploration would not commence until the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management completes the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement and final Program Plan, with Virginia offshore drilling commencing no sooner than 2021. The draft PEIS is scheduled to be released for public comment in 2016
Eight companies have submitted applications to conduct geological and geophysical testing in the proposed lease areas of the Atlantic.