Offshore drilling: Energy vs. ecology

Offshore drilling: Energy vs. ecology

VIRGINIA BEACH Those attending a meeting at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Center last week on offshore oil and gas drilling got a healthy dose of perspective even before the discussion began.

Walking to the meeting room past huge tanks full of sea life provided some feeling for the stakes involved in ending a 25-year federal moratorium on offshore drilling.

Environmentalists at the meeting said if a decision is made to drill off Virginia’s coast, it must be done very carefully so as not to threaten an ocean ecosystem that includes some of the Atlantic’s most pristine barrier islands.

They suggested national efforts would be better spent on improving energy efficiency and conservation and the development of renewable sources of energy.

“Why accept the cost [of drilling], if there is a better way?” asked the Sierra Club’s Michael Town.

He called renewed efforts to drill the deep ocean a Band-Aid approach that will distract America from developing long-term energy solutions.

Yet supporters of drilling said everything possible must be done to ease the nation’s reliance on foreign energy, including opening more offshore areas to development.

Representatives of energy companies and industrial consumers of natural gas urged ending the drilling ban.

Virginia industries use natural gas as a fuel and as a raw material for manufacturing, said Brett Vassey, president of the Virginia Manufacturers Association.

High U.S. natural-gas prices have put roughly 10,000 Virginia manufacturing jobs at risk, he said.

U.S. energy strategy in the past has been cheap energy, but times have profoundly changed, said Henry Lee of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Energy has become a much more significant problem, he said.

The nation has been talking about using energy more efficiently for 35 years, he said. And he suggested renewable energy, which requires lots of land (for things such as windmills and crops for bio-fuels), is not a solution.

“Where are we going to get all that land, and are we willing to pay for it?” Lee asked.

The key to oil and gas is to use it more efficiently, he said, predicting $100 a barrel of oil within a decade. A barrel of light crude has hovered around $70 a barrel recently.

And for coal, which the country has in abundance, the challenge is to find ways to use it more cleanly, Lee said.

Congressional Quarterly magazine and Shell Exploration and Production sponsored the ma rine center meeting. It is one of four such meetings planned around the country that will address the economics, environment and national-security issues of energy exploration.

Support by the General Assembly over the past two years for offshore natural-gas drilling has focused attention on Virginia as the possible wedge that will break the federal drilling ban.

However, this year, at the insistence of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the legislature restricted state support to federal efforts to determine the extent of offshore natural-gas deposits.

Kaine has said he needs more information about offshore resources before taking a position on lifting the ban.

Ultimately, though, the decision lies in the hands of the president and Congress, where legislation to lift the ban is being considered.

The Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service has proposed a five-year leasing plan that includes undersea lands off the Virginia coast for oil and gas exploration.

Assistant Interior Secretary Johnnie Burton, who oversees offshore leasing in the Gulf of Mexico and other areas not covered by the moratorium, said the federal government cannot pay for offshore exploration as Kaine has suggested. The oil and gas industries have done the exploration in the past with the expectation that they would have rights to whatever commercial resources they find.

The U.S. Navy, which conducts live-fire training up to 130 miles offshore, has recently joined conservationists in opposition to drilling off Virginia. State and federal lawmakers said the military’s needs come first but expressed confidence that the Navy’s concerns could be overcome.

State Sen. Frank W. Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, the General Assembly’s leading offshore-drilling advocate, attempted to show that drilling would not take up too much ocean. He showed a map of Washington with lines drawn far into the suburbs from a central point to illustrate how a single drilling platform could explore and produce energy over a wide area of the sea.

Republican Congresswoman Thelma Drake of Virginia Beach said she supports drilling but added that it must be done without harm to the environment. Domestic energy production is a matter of energy and national security, she said.

Whatever decision is made about drilling should be made very carefully, advised Mark Swinger, director of research and conservation for the aquarium, the meeting’s host.

Between Virginia Beach and Cape Hatteras is one of the richest marine ecologies in the world, and clearly it would be affected by drilling, he said.


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