Press Release | January 13, 2009

Environmental Groups Call for Withdrawal of Offshore Drilling Proposal for Virginia

The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of itself and three organizations, has called on the U.S. Department of Interior to abandon plans to open the Virginia coast to oil or gas drilling. In a letter to the Minerals Management Service (MMS) late yesterday, the law center detailed the substantial risk to the environment and coastal communities from drilling, and said those harms far outweigh the benefit of extracting the relatively low amounts of fossil fuel from the ocean depths off Virginia.

The agency announced plans to offer a lease sale shortly after Congress lifted a quarter-century moratorium on offshore drilling in the Atlantic in late September. SELC's letter was submitted as part of the public comment period on the scope of a proposed environmental impact statement. (Virginia Delegate Brian Moran also sent comments to MMS similarly rejecting the idea of drilling off Virginia's coast; Congressman Jim Moran of Virginia and Governor Tim Kaine have also expressed objections to the agency's plans.)

SELC compared the meager amount of recoverable oil and gas with the potentially drastic impacts of drilling to important marine species, including the endangered Northern right whale and humpback whale, dolphins, sea turtles, and many migratory birds.  The area under question begins 50 miles off the coast and extends eastward about 183 miles, covering approximately 3 million acres. The MMS estimates the area contains 130 million barrels of oil and 1,140 billion cubic feet of gas, which it estimates would be consumed in roughly 6 and 18 days, respectively.

The proposed drilling could also threaten the $9 billion commercial and recreational fishing industry and the $107 billion tourism industry from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras. In addition, the accompanying onshore infrastructure to store, process and transport the fossil fuels would threaten environmental, recreational and scenic resources in Virginia's coastal communities.

SELC also points out the conflict of offshore drilling in the very area used by the U.S. Navy, which has strenuously objected to the proposed lease sale.

Occurring in the twilight days of the Bush Administration, the proposal appears to be an attempt to rush through ill-advised policies prior to the Obama Administration taking office.  The MMS has said it is acting at the behest of Governor Tim Kaine; however, in a letter to the agency in December, the governor wrote: “The actions … to start the leasing process could lead to drilling and production of natural gas and oil, and, for that reason, do not comport with Virginia's offshore energy policies…”

“Scientists at a recent MMS workshop concluded that insufficient research is available to predict the impact of drilling on a broad range of resources, including fisheries and endangered species,” said SELC Senior Attorney Deborah Murray.

Climate change could exacerbate impacts on the ocean ecosystem, compounding the impacts of drilling offshore,.  “Climate change is already causing stress on the wildlife that make the ocean so special in this area – the whales, dolphins and fish,” said SELC Senior Attorney Kay Slaughter. “Virginia Beach is rated 10th in the world in terms of expected impacts from climate change; drilling would only exacerbate this situation.”

SELC proposed that MMS seek additional funding for its environmental studies to support its decisions. It also asks the agency to integrate offshore wind power into its 5-year plan for the offshore area. SELC wrote the letter on behalf of itself, the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, Virginia League of Conservation Voters, and Environment Virginia.

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