The White House today announced plans to drill for oil and gas in a three million acre area off Virginia’s coast — the first ever drilling allowed off the U.S. Atlantic coast — and extends potential drilling to the rest of the Atlantic, focusing on the Southeastern U.S. The Virginia lease sale, just north of North Carolina and at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, puts at
risk some of America’s richest marine life and coastal resources, which are the backbone of many coastal economies, generating billions of dollars in revenues from tourism, recreation, and commercial fishing.

Drilling in the Atlantic will jeopardize the entire Atlantic coastline in order to recover an estimated six months of oil and 19 months of natural gas at current national consumption rates, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The proposed Virginia lease sale area holds just six days of oil and 18 days of natural gas.

The announcement comes despite Obama’s campaign rhetoric opposing offshore oil drilling, as well as a recent Department of Interior finding that points to major gaps in scientific data about marine resources along the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf. Also opposed to the oil drilling plans are the U.S. Navy and NASA, which have training and testing operations in and around the
Virginia lease area.

“It is truly disappointing to see this Administration risk so much for so little,” said Southern Environmental Law Center Attorney Marirose Pratt.  What we know about the miniscule amount of oil and gas in the Atlantic cannot justify the costs to our environment and our coastal economies, especially when there are better ways to meet energy needs for the long term, not just six days or even six months. Virginia has significant offshore wind resources, which can provide sustainable, home-grown energy well into the future. That’s where we ought to be focusing our time, energy and technological know-how.”

For nearly 30 years, Congress and successive presidents have protected the Atlantic from the dirty and risky business of offshore oil and gas drilling. Rather than continue that legacy, today’s announcement opens the way for additional drilling in Virginia and the Mid- and South Atlantic. The plan includes the Virginia lease sale, originally scheduled for November of next year, will be offered in 2012, giving the Minerals Management Service (MMS) time to conduct the necessary environmental impact statement as required by law. It generally
takes a minimum of seven years for an offshore lease sale to undergo the requisite environmental reviews for both marine and onshore resources before producing oil or gas. Because this would be the first drilling off the East coast, it’s conceivable that it will take even longer for any oil and gas resources to reach the market. Any oil or gas produced from the Virginia lease sale would have no impact on domestic oil and gas prices until at least 2030, and even then any such impact would be “insignificant,” according to the Energy Information Administration.

By contrast, commercial fishing, recreational fishing and tourism, all of which bring in billions of dollars and support thousands of jobs in the coastal communities, would be threatened by pollution from refineries, pipelines and other onshore facilities, the daily operations of oil rigs, and the potential for a major oil spill resulting, for example, from hurricanes or tropical storms. In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused roughly 743,400 gallons of petroleum products to be spilled from platforms, rigs and pipelines, according to MMS. A major spill by Coast Guard definition is anything over 100,000 gallons.

The Virginia proposal has the support of much of the state’s congressional delegation, and has been the centerpiece of Governor Bob McDonnell’s campaign and administration based on the notion of bringing jobs and revenue to the Commonwealth, even though Congress has repeatedly rejected legislation allowing the federal government to share revenue from offshore drilling with states other than the Gulf states.

Research and information for this post provided by the Southern Environmental Law Center.