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Virginia senators back bill to expand offshore drilling

RICHMOND, Va. — Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb introduced legislation Wednesday to open waters off Virginia to gas and oil exploration in 2012 and to redraw maps to encompass more territory for drilling and bring in more revenue.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

Virginia had been banking on a lease sale of offshore tracts by 2012, but planned East Coast exploration was delayed at least until 2017 after last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.

Webb and Warner also proposed directing half of all leasing revenues back to the state, with a portion going toward land and water conservation.

Citing the nation’s dependence on imported oil, Warner and Webb said the legislation is good for the economy and the nation’s security.

“We should not be sending hundreds of billions of dollars each year to oil-producing countries that do not like us,” Warner said in a statement.

“Opening up and expanding Virginia’s offshore resources to responsible natural gas and oil exploration holds significant promise for boosting needed domestic energy production, while bolstering the commonwealth’s economy,” Webb said.

The two Democrats have long supported offshore oil and gas exploration off the state’s coast, provided it can be done safely.

Warner said the legislation simply puts Virginia back on track for offshore exploration and will not result in drilling overnight.

“All this does is start the process,” he said in an interview. “We’re seven to eight years away from drilling.”

Gov. Bob McDonnell has worked to bring exploration to the state’s offshore waters as a cornerstone of his pledge to make Virginia an energy powerhouse. He had lobbied federal officials to alter the map off the coast to ensure a larger footprint for gas and oil exploration.

The current exploration area encompasses 2.9 million acres, 50 miles off Virginia’s coast.

The map, which reflects the contours of the state’s coast, narrows to a point as it moves farther into the Atlantic. The government estimates the area can produce 130 million barrels of oil and 1.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

McDonnell has argued the map is not favorably drawn for Virginia, and a reconfigured map would reap more revenues for the state.

Legislation or administrative action is required to ensure that states get a share of revenues for energy exploration in federal waters off their shores. Gulf states receive 37.5 percent of energy revenue generated off their coasts.

In a statement, McDonnell said offshore exploration has strong bipartisan support in Virginia, and would nudge the U.S. closer to energy independence.

“We need more safe and reliable sources of domestic energy,” said McDonnell, a Republican. “We need more jobs. Utilizing our offshore oil and natural gas resources accomplishes both of these goals.”

Seismic studies haven’t been conducted in the waters off Virginia in decades and industry estimates forecast much higher gas and oil reserves than previously thought, based on new exploration technology.

Environmentalists are skeptical, and contend offshore drilling isn’t worth the environmental risks to tourism and fishing. They argue that estimates of oil and gas potential off Virginia represent just a sip compared to the nation’s big thirst for energy.

The Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter and Chesapeake Climate Action Network each criticized the legislation Wednesday, arguing that Webb and Warner should focus on promoting renewable energy and clean-job creation, primarily through offshore wind development.

“People still remember the disaster in the Gulf Coast just last year and do not want to see a similar tragedy visited upon Virginia Beach,” said Glen Besa, director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club.

The American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, applauded the legislation.

“Virginia represents just one of the many opportunities that exist to access an enormous amount of energy reserved in the United States,” the API said in a statement.

The Webb and Warner legislation would also:

  • Include the so-called Lease Sale 220 off Virginia in the nation’s five-year gas and lease plan, starting in 2012.
  • Direct 37.5 percent off any leasing revenues to the state, and seek an additional 12.5 percent of any revenues toward land and water conservation, public transportation and alternative energy projects.

Warner acknowledged that the legislation is far from a “slam dunk.” He said, for instance, that the revenue sharing would require the backing of interior states that don’t have potential windfalls from offshore development.