Virginia Beach, once a holdout among coastal cities publicly staking out no-drilling stances, this week voted to oppose oil and gas exploration and seismic testing in its offshore waters.
The move is a remarkable turnaround for a city council that once embraced the idea of offshore oil rigs. Then, in 2015, the city switched to a “neutral” position in deference to the Navy and its concerns. Several councilmembers this year changed their minds, citing worries about how oil drilling might affect both the tourism industry and the Navy.
The ocean off the coast of Virginia Beach is a critical training ground for Navy sailors and aviators. Navy officials in 2015 said the presence of oil rigs would interfere with exercises and could affect the service’s readiness. And for the past two years, a growing coalition of business leaders in the hospitality industry has pressed city council to oppose drilling.
“This is a vote to protect our beach, and to protect all the businesses, workers and visitors who depend on our beach,” said Laura Habr, co-owner of Croc’s 19th Street Bistro and a founding member of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast. “Our tourism economy is too important to take for granted and the Council has thankfully decided offshore drilling is not worth the risk.”
The state’s largest city, Virginia Beach counts 12,000 workers in the hospitality industry with a combined yearly salary of $244 million. Tourists bring about $1.4 billion annually to the city economy, according to the city’s records.
The move was particularly notable because Virginia Beach makes up almost all of the state’s Atlantic Ocean border. Northampton and Accomack counties, the only other Virginia municipalities that share the Atlantic, previously passed resolutions opposing offshore drilling.
Because Virginia Beach is such an influential city, Lynnhaven River NOW Executive Director Karen Forget says she hopes other leaders will notice.
“We are proud of the Virginia Beach City Council for taking a stand on this important issue,” Forget said. “We hope that it will inspire others, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, to reconsider their positions on offshore drilling and seismic testing. It is not worth the risk to our waterways, to tourism, to the Navy’s offshore operations, and to our wildlife.”
The Virginia Beach vote comes at a crucial point as the Trump Administration has indicated they are considering reversing a previous decision to place Atlantic waters off limits to offshore drilling. Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, said the desires of Atlantic Coast communities will play a role in the Trump Administration’s eventual decision.
The Virginia Beach City Council now joins the leadership of more than a hundred Atlantic seaside cities and towns have previously passed anti-drilling resolutions. They include Atlantic City and Cape May in New Jersey; Lewes and Rehoboth Beach in Delaware; the North Carolina beaches of the Outer Banks; Charleston and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina; Savannah, Ga.; and Jacksonville Beach and Miami Beach in Florida.