Virginia senators slam delay in offshore drilling

WASHINGTON Wed Jan 27, 2010 10:55pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Virginia's two U.S. senators on Wednesday urged the Obama administration to carry out a previous plan to lease almost 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) in federal waters off the state's coastline to oil and natural gas companies.

The lawmakers said in a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that recent comments by a department official that the Virginia lease sale originally planned for late 2011 would be delayed until 2012 at the earliest are frustrating given that drilling creates jobs and needed energy supplies.

The offshore Virginia area that would be leased may hold 130 million barrels of oil and 1.14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to government estimates.

The senators, both Democrats, asked Salazar to complete the Interior Department's study on the environmental impact of drilling of the Virginia coast and publish rules to allow energy companies to conduct seismic surveys to determine the potential oil and gas resources in Atlantic waters.

"We would urge you to promptly commence these steps in order to ensure that the Virginia lease sale is conducted in a manner that is timely and consistent with the interests of the environment and our national security," wrote Senators Jim Webb and Mark Warner.

Virginia would be the first state on the U.S. Atlantic seaboard to have offshore drilling since a congressional ban and a presidential moratorium against offshore energy exploration in Atlantic waters ended in 2008.

The federal government's current five-year offshore drilling plan, which was created by the Bush administration, calls for leasing a triangular area located about 50 miles off the Virginia shoreline in November 2011.

Salazar says he will decide by this summer whether the Bush plan to allow drilling off Virginia will go forward.

However, the department's Minerals Management Service, which oversees offshore drilling, said the original Virginia leasing plan will be delayed. The department may still decide against any energy exploration in the area.

Lars Herbst, MMS regional director for the Gulf of Mexico, announced the delay last week at an offshore industry workshop held in Texas. The event was closed to the press.

Herbst said the MMS staff was still reviewing whether to hold the Virginia lease sale. Even if it is given the go-ahead, the earliest the area would be leased is in 2012, before the current five-year drilling plan ends on June 30 of that year, he said.

Virginia's new Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, asked Salazar last month to hold the lease sale as originally scheduled in 2011.

McDonnell has not been notified by the Interior Department on "any changes to the current lease sale schedule," the governor's spokesman, Tucker Martin, said on Wednesday.

He said the governor wants to ensure the offshore leasing plan "moves forward, as scheduled, without delay."

In the Republican response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech to Congress on Wednesday night, McDonnell complained that the White House was slowing efforts to expand offshore drilling.

(Reporting by Tom Doggett; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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