The debate about offshore oil exploration has landed nearly in
Maryland's backyard. The Department of Interior today took the first
step towards allowing drilling in the Atlantic Ocean off the Virginia
coast - just a little more than 50 miles from Maryland's shore.
agency announced it would seek expressions of interest in the
4,500-acre tract, with an eye to leasing it in 2011 if it passes an
environmental impact review. Federal geologists estimate the area may
contain as much as 130 million barrels of oil and 1.3 trillion cubic
feet of natural gas. For more on the proposal, go here.
offshore opening was created a few months ago in the midst of the
nation's energy price fever, when President Bush and Congress
collaborated to lift a longstanding ban on new drilling off the
But the announcement drew immediate criticism from environmentalists, who questioned the location and the timing.
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"This would be 50 miles off the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay,'' pointed out Michael Gravitz of Environment America.
A catastrophic oil spill might wash into the bay, fouling wetlands and
wildlife in the already struggling estuary. He also warned that ocean
currents could carry any contaminants northward to Ocean City and the
Delaware beaches. At risk, he said, would be the bay's beleagured
crabs, Assateague Island's picturesque wild ponies and the
mid-Atlantic's popular vacation resorts.
The risk makes little
sense, Gravitz added, when you consider that all the oil and gas
the federal government estimates might be found there over the 30-year
life of the lease would only be enough to supply the nation's needs for
a week or two at most.
He and others also pointed out that this
move to boost offshore drilling by the Bush administration could easily
be reversed by the incoming Democratic team. When gas prices were at
their peak in late summer, Obama backed limited offshore drilling, but
not as much as the McCain-Palin ticket advocated.
"It does seem
they're in a bit of a rush to move this forward,'' said Carl Tobias, a
law professor at the University of Richmond.