5/6/2011 - Governor McDonnell renews push for offshore drilling

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Gov. Bob McDonnell is pushing anew to open waters off Virginia to oil and gas exploration, appealing to President Barack Obama and Congress to end a moratorium on East Coast drilling.

He's still waiting to hear from Obama, but the U.S. House did just that on Thursday, passing legislation that could return a vast area in the Atlantic to energy exploration. The bill's prospects in the Senate are uncertain.

McDonnell used the backdrop of a suburban service station and gas prices flirting with the $4 mark to forcefully argue for a "red, white and blue" U.S. energy policy that includes drilling off Virginia's coast. The Gulf oil disaster in 2010 delayed any East Coast drilling until at least 2017.

The Republican governor made that pitch to Obama in letter dated April 15 but has yet to receive a response.

"The pain at the pump is the result of many factors, one of which is the result of our ongoing dependence on foreign sources of oil," McDonnell said as vehicles streamed through the pumps behind him. He said the country should consider all domestic energy production, including nuclear power, wind, solar and biomass.

He added, "A key part of that effort should be the environmentally responsible development and production of oil and natural gas off of Virginia's shores."

McDonnell, who learned of the House's passage of the drilling legislation at the news conference, said the nation cannot ignore the consequences of ever-rising gas prices on the economy and consumers. He cited estimates that the average U.S. household will pay an extra $1,210 more on gasoline this year.

"That is money that could be spent by families on education, groceries and vacations," he said.

Even before his January 2010 inauguration, McDonnell has been promoting Virginia as a future "energy capital," and offshore drilling was a cornerstone of achieving that vision. Then the Deepwater Horizon accident occurred and the Obama administration shelved plans to open East Coast waters to drilling.

While McDonnell acknowledged that the Gulf spill was "unprecedented disaster," he said the nation should now move forward to expand oil and gas exploration.

"I know that the lessons learned over the last year will produce the new technology and safety standards to make sure we have the safest and highest standards before we explore and drill in Virginia," he said.

The government believes nearly 3 million acres off Virginia's coast 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.

Critics have said the return isn't worth the environmental risk to Virginia's tourism attractions, such as Virginia Beach and the Chesapeake Bay, and its commercial and recreational fishery.

The House vote and McDonnell's news conference, which attracted a half-dozen protesters from the Sierra Club, sparked immediate criticism from the Southern Environmental Law Center.

"We agree with Governor McDonnell that America needs to increase its domestic source of energy -- but we strongly disagree that that should entail putting our coastal communities, fishing and tourism business at risk," Nat Mund, the center's legislative director, said in a statement.

The legislation approved by the House on Thursday would force the federal government to conduct three lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and one off the Virginia coast within a year, or by June 2012. Lease sales are the first step in a multi-year process that can culminate in drilling.


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