Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell sharply criticized the President Barack Obama administration's decision Wednesday to delay at least until 2017 East Coast oil and gas exploration, a key component of the Republican governor's bid to make Virginia an energy power.
“This is an irresponsible and shortsighted decision,” McDonnell said in a statement. He described offshore energy exploration as “environmentally responsible, and economically crucial.”
McDonnell has promoted an energy-based economy during his first year in office, encompassing nuclear power, offshore winds, bioenergy and other approaches. But he pursued offshore and oil and gas exploration off Virginia's coast with great vigor during the early days of his administration.
Even after the BP Gulf oil disaster, McDonnell said the government should have at least move forward with a planned 2012 lease sale, which was scrapped, until the full extent of the spill was evaluated.
McDonnell said the administration's decision reflected “no confidence” the government's ability to correct the problems that occurred in the Gulf. He said he relayed his concerns to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar before his announcement.
Obama's decision scuttles a prominent piece of McDonnell's plan for paying for long-term transportation construction needs in Virginia that would cost tens of billions of dollars.
McDonnell proposed and earlier this year signed into law a bill that designates 70 percent of the royalties paid to the state for offshore leasing rights to transportation.
Environmental groups welcomed the Obama administration decision. They have argued oil and gas reserves 50 miles off the coast were not worth the risk to commercial fishing and tourism destinations such as Virginia Beach.
“The BP disaster brings into sharp focus just how risky offshore drilling is and the ecological and economic tragedies that await,” said Deborah Murray, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Oceana, which has been promoting offshore winds, likened oil and gas exploration to “allowing campfires in national parks in the dry season.”
“It wrecks fisheries, kills the jobs that depend upon them and contaminates beaches,” Oceana's Andrew Sharpless said of offshore gas and oil drilling. He called the decision “a wise and sensible step.”
Environmental groups said McDonnell should take the cue to focus more on renewable energy.
McDonnell said the decision comes amid “one of the toughest economies in our history” and will result in lost job opportunities, stunted economic growth and increased dependence on foreign oil.
“Punishing an entire industry because of the actions of one company is not good policy,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell's position was supported by Virginia's small business owners, represented by the National Federation of Independent Business. Membership overwhelmingly backed offshore oil and gas exploration.
“Small business owners, like everyone else, are very concerned about crippling energy costs,” said Julia Ciarlo Hammond, state director of the federation. Offshore exploration, she added would give a “much-needed shot in the arm of Virginia's economy.”
The Obama decision will leave untouched by exploration almost 3 million acres off Virginia's shoreline. Like the Gulf area, some portions of the Virginia leasing area would have required drilling more than 1 mile under the surface.
The government believes the Virginia leasing area could produce 130 million barrels of oil and 1.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Environmentalists have said that will provide the U.S. with six days of oil and 18 days of natural gas, based on current consumption trends and it's not worth the environmental risks.
But the industry has said the estimates are based on decades-old seismic studies and new testing will likely inflate that estimate.