Panel with Virginia governor will detail state’s opposition to offshore drilling

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who grew up on Virginia's Eastern Shore, spoke about the Chesapeake Bay as a priority as a candidate during a forum in the fall of 2017. Since taking office, he has opposed a new federal plan to allow offshore oil drilling near Virginia and will discuss his concerns at an upcoming forum. (Whitney Pipkin)

A coalition of Virginia officials now opposes federal leasing plans that would permit oil drilling in waters off the coast of the state. Gov. Ralph Northam — who has said he will use “every tool at his disposal” to derail the drilling plans — will share the specifics of his stance during a forum at Old Dominion University in Norfolk at 6:30 p.m. on March 5.

Northam will return to the Tidewater region that he once represented in the state senate to participate in a panel about the risks that offshore drilling poses to the region’s environment, economy and military. The event is part of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Blue Planet Forum at ODU’s Ted Constant Convocation Center.

The Trump administration has proposed allowing drilling off the coast of Virginia and other Atlantic states by leasing portions of the Outer Continental Shelf for energy development as part of a new five-year plan. The federal government is accepting public comments until March 9 on the plan from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, part of the Department of Interior.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe supported an initial proposal to open the coast to drilling in a plan that included revenue-sharing with coastal states. But he changed his position near the end of his term, citing renewed concerns about the industry’s ability to drill responsibly.  

The administration’s draft plan, released early this year, is expected to face strong opposition from state officials and environmental groups. U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said at a press conference on the draft proposal in January that “nothing is final” and that states and local communities will have a say before the new regions would be opened to drilling leases in 2019.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker also will speak on the March 5 panel about the “unjustifiable risks” that he said offshore drilling poses for the Bay environment. He will be joined by local representatives Andria McClellan, a Norfolk City Council member, and Bruce Thompson, CEO of Gold Key PHR, a hospitality group in Virginia Beach, whose concerns extend to drilling’s impact on the local economy and livelihood of the coastal cities.

McClellan said the decision about drilling is more than a philosophical one for residents and industry representatives in the Hampton Roads region, where sea level rise already contributes to worsening floods.

“Norfolk and Hampton Roads are susceptible to some of the worst potential flood risks in the country, which is a function of climate change, in our opinion,” McClellan said. “We need to create not only adaptations for flooding but also curb greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change. This is counter to that mission.”

The city of Norfolk passed a resolution opposing offshore drilling and seismic testing in the summer of 2017. This month, the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, which represents 17 municipalities, voted unanimously to approve a letter that objects to drilling off the coast of Virginia.

In a call with Interior Secretary Zinke, Gov. Northam said he requested that additional hearings on the changes take place in the Tidewater region, where the largest population proportions of Virginians might be impacted. He also formally requested that Virginia be exempt from the bureau’s next five-year oil and gas leasing program, citing concerns in a letter he wrote in January.

Federal military officials have raised their own concerns about the prospect of offshore drilling near the largest naval base in the world in Norfolk. The Secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs, Carlos Hopkins, said the decision could have implications for military readiness in the region, seconding the governor’s request for additional public comment periods take place in coastal regions of the state.

“The risk to the military — that it would interfere with training and the potential for the Navy to move an air carrier group and some 6,000 jobs — is considerable,” McClellan said.

For the Bay Foundation, which is hosting the panel event, the largest concerns revolve around water quality and risk in a coastal area that can quickly impact the still-delicate Chesapeake Bay.

CBF’s Baker wrote in a statement that an oil spill at the wrong time of year could destroy an entire year class of the blue crabs that use coastal waters in their early life stages.

“The waters off the mouth of the Chesapeake are as much a part of the Bay system as the freshwater rivers that feed it,” he said.

The panel on offshore drilling in Virginia is free, but attendees are asked to RSVP in advance by visiting, e-mailing, or calling 757-622-1964.

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