More Energy Needed

Should we drill off the coast of Virginia? Environmentalists and economists continue the debate as we search for solutions to fuel America's voracious appetite for oil.

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Community Concerns

Domenech’s optimism seems to be shared by localities that stand to benefit from oil and gas exploration. Most are open to the idea of offshore drilling, or at least are not outright opposed. But local officials are discovering that support for environmentally responsible offshore drilling is not a simple matter; some of the voices of concern are coming from longestablished fixtures in the community.

For example, Virginia Beach spokeswoman Mary Hancock says that city council “supports offshore oil and gas drilling as long as it is safe and has no impact on military operations.” That last condition, for Virginia Beach anyway, might be a tricky dance indeed, since much of Lease Sale 220 overlaps parts of the ocean that the military uses extensively for training exercises.

To be clear, the Department of Defense (DOD) recognizes that there are various current and potential uses for the ocean. According to spokeswoman Eileen Lainez, “The Department of Defense is committed to working with the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to support the development of our nation’s offshore energy resources while ensuring our ability to conduct military training, testing and operations.”

There are large portions of the coastal Atlantic that wouldn’t interfere with the military. For example, in the U.S. Minerals Management Service Mid-Atlantic Planning Area, a stretch of the ocean from Delaware Bay to the North Carolina-South Carolina border, the DOD has recommended less than one-tenth of that area be placed off limits to oil and gas drilling.

But zoom into Lease Sale 220—the only part of the Atlantic that Virginians have been trying to open to drilling—and the percentage of restricted area increases dramatically. The DOD has recommended against any oil and gas drilling in 72 percent of Lease Sale 220. Among the activities conducted in that part of the ocean, according to a 2010 Pentagon report, were “live ordinance release and impact” and “aircrew landing qualifications (day and night).”

The military suggests no oil and gas restrictions on only 22 percent of Lease Sale 220, and drilling opponents fear that populating that relatively small area with oil and gas platforms is a disaster waiting to happen since commercial maritime traffic heavily utilizes that unrestricted space.

Along with numerous military bases, Virginia is also home to NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Accomack County on the Eastern Shore. Much of what’s done at Wallops is launching rockets; the facility is ideally suited for that mission, as it’s on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean.

The idea of setting up permanent platforms in the ocean is worrisome for NASA officials, according to spokesman Keith Koehler. “Whenever we do a launch we’re responsible for safety out there [in the ocean],” he says. Prior to launching a rocket, NASA contacts the Department of Defense and other parties that may have a presence near the rocket’s trajectory to bring the risk to life and property as close to zero as they can get it.

That diligence is not just to guard against some freak accident, but because many of the rockets launched at Wallops are suborbital. They’re research rockets and designed to have parts of them—motors and payloads, for instance—fall back into the ocean to be collected later. Putting oil and gas platforms in an area where rockets literally fall from the sky is not just a risky proposition, but one that could compromise NASA’s mission at Wallops. “We need to understand the exact number and placement of the platforms in order for us to do a safety analysis,” says Koehler. “But regardless of the numbers, it’s going to have an effect as to what we can offer, what type of launches we can perform.”

What’s clear from all the voices chiming in is that drilling off the coast of Virginia is not a black-and-white issue, not just a matter of deciding to retrieve that oil and gas or not. As Virginia and the United States chart a path to the future, the fuel that ultimately takes us there will only come after long deliberations and important discussions.

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