Editorial: Caution returns on offshore drilling

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    It’s pretty simple, really: Virginians want to know if there is natural gas in federal waters off the coast so we can make an intelligent decision about whether drilling is worth the trouble and risk.

    The state has a law to that effect. According to that law, Virginia has no current interest in exploring or drilling for oil, which is much nastier stuff environmentally. Virginia would decide whether to invite gas companies only after it knows how much is out there.

    For years, that’s been the state’s official, declared position. And yet, for those same years, the federal government acted as if Virginia wants platforms – right now – off the Eastern Shore.

    Finally, and thankfully, the federal government seems to have injected caution into its headlong rush to allow drilling off Virginia’s coast. On Wednesday, in an interview with The Pilot’s Dale Eisman and other reporters, President Obama expressed caution about opening the Outer Continental Shelf to drilling, and said it should be only a part of a comprehensive strategy on energy.

    This week, Obama’s new Interior secretary, Ken Salazar, said he wouldn’t stand in the way of plans to lease federal territory off Virginia to oil and gas companies. But he also said scientists would begin examining the economic possibilities and environmental risks, a study that might alter the approach. And he said the administration would focus more on developing offshore renewable sources, like wind and wave energy, “torpedoed” by the Bush administration.

    As the end of the Bush administration approached, officials at the Minerals Management Service bustled ever faster toward opening federal waters off the state’s coast to oil and gas companies. It raced ahead with the planning process, trying to get stuff moving before Obama took office.

    According to long-ago exploration, there doesn’t appear to be much out there. The federal government, in fact, still uses a map that narrows the federal territory allocated to Virginia to a sliver of what it should be, which means the commonwealth would be shortchanged on royalties. In any case, the feds still haven’t decided how such theoretical royalties would be allocated – how much would go to Richmond and how much would go to D.C.

    This effort isn’t ultimately about Virginia. It’s about opening up more oil-rich states to our north and south. Virginia is just the foot in the door petroleum companies need to reach into other states’ more lucrative offshore territories.

    Several weeks ago, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and lawmakers from up and down the East Coast asked the MMS to hold off until the new administration came in. MMS Director Randall Luthi, a Wyoming lawyer and rancher, rejected that request. “The reality is, the next administration can delay the process, speed up the process or imprint the process as they see fit,” he argued.

    Thankfully, the Obama administration has begun to do just that.

     

    hamptonroads.com  ©The Virginian-Pilot

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