Jackson: Drilling off Va. could hurt N.J.

Jackson: Drilling off Va. could hurt N.J.

If Congress allows oil and natural gas drilling off the Virginia coast, New Jersey’s $36 billion-a-year tourism industry and fragile coastal ecosystems could be devastated, state Environment Commissioner Lisa Jackson told a Senate panel Thursday.

The state’s commercial and sport fishing industries as well as aquaculture operations, which together generate $4.5 billion a year, also could suffer because the proposed Virginia drilling site is 75 miles from New Jersey, Jackson told the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Minerals Management Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of the Interior, wants to auction 21 leases for oil and gas exploration by June 2012, including one for a small site off Virginia.

Congress has to lift a drilling ban in the Atlantic before those leases can be auctioned.

Last year, Congress lifted a longstanding drilling ban in the country’s outer continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico. That allows companies to explore for oil and natural gas tens of thousands of feet below the water, particularly off the Florida and Alabama coasts.

Speaking to Gannett News Service during a break in the hearing, Jackson said the danger to New Jersey from oil spills spreading from Virginia is a “remote, worst-case scenario,” but the state doesn’t want to take the chance.

New Jerseyans want the federal government to promote energy conservation and increasing the use of renewable fuel sources, instead of drilling for more fossil fuels, Jackson said.

“The citizens of New Jersey aren’t for this,” Jackson said, raising the specter of oil spills from drilling sites and oil tankers traveling close to New Jersey. “Public opinion in our area says, “Why? Why would we take the risk?’ ”

She pointed to a recent tanker grounding in the Delaware River, which fouled Delaware’s beaches.

C. Stephen Allred, an assistant secretary at the Interior Department, said deepwater drilling is critical to weaning the nation off imported oil and meeting exploding energy demands.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a committee member, said drilling makes more sense in the Gulf of Mexico because it has more oil and gas deposits. Citing 2006 federal estimates, Menendez said the Atlantic Ocean has only 5.8 percent of the nation’s known oil deposits and 3.3 percent of its natural gas.

He asked Allred, “Why in the world are we looking at the Atlantic seaboard?”

Allred said Atlantic Ocean estimates are based on 25-year-old data and there may be many more deposits. Congress didn’t give the Interior Department enough money to conduct a more thorough energy assessment in the Atlantic, he said.

Later Thursday, Menendez and Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., introduced legislation to ban drilling along the mid- and north Atlantic coasts.

New Jersey Reps. Frank J. Pallone Jr., D-N.J.; Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J.; H. James Saxton, R-N.J.; and Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., also have written to the Bush administration to oppose drilling off the Virginia coast.

Source: www.app.com

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