* Earliest date for lease sale off Virginia coast is 2012
* Offshore lease area may hold 130 million barrels of oil
* New Virginia governor wants leasing plan to go forward
By Tom Doggett
WASHINGTON, Jan 26 The federal government's
controversial plan to allow oil and gas drilling off Virginia's
coast will be delayed, frustrating energy companies who for
years have pushed for access to more offshore areas.
The delay also derails a recent request from Virginia's new
governor for the U.S. Interior Department to lease the offshore
tracts to oil and gas companies as scheduled and creates more
uncertainty over whether the drilling plan will ever be carried
The federal government's current five-year drilling plan,
which was drawn up under the Bush administration, calls for
leasing almost 3 million acres in a triangular area located
about 50 miles off the Virginia shoreline in November 2011.
The Obama administration put that plan under review when it
came into office, and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says
he will decide by this summer whether the prior Bush plan will
However, the department's Minerals Management Service,
which oversees offshore drilling, said the proposed 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, according to several people who attended the
event, which was not open to the press. MMS spokeswoman Eileen
Angelico confirmed Herbst's comments.
Herbst said the MMS staff was still reviewing whether to
hold the Virginia lease sale. But if it is cleared, the
earliest the area would be leased is in 2012, before the
current five-year drilling plan ends on June 30 of that year.
The leasing plan could also be delayed past that date.
"They're still analyzing whether they're going to be able
to hold the lease sale then or not," said Angelico, who added
that more time was needed to study the environmental impact of
potential offshore drilling.
The proposed Virginia lease area may hold 130 million
barrels of oil and 1.14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
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 area was included in the current five-year drilling
plan at Virginia's request. The state's new governor, Bob
McDonnell, wrote Salazar in late December and urged the
secretary to allow drilling off Virginia in 2011 as scheduled.
"Any effort to remove or delay Virginia's participation in
the lease sale would significantly hamper our efforts to create
jobs, eliminate much-needed new revenue and undermine support
for President Obama's stated commitment to make the United
States more energy secure," McDonnell said in his letter.
The governor's office could not be reached for comment.
The American Petroleum Institute, the trade group for big
oil and gas companies, criticized the department's move.
"This just demonstrates what remains a pattern with the
Salazar Interior Department. Delay, delay, delay," said API
spokeswoman Cathy Landry. "Instead of moving forward, and
conducting environmental reviews so the sale could occur in
2011, Salazar stalled."
In a related matter, Salazar said the Interior Department
will publish in the Federal Register this week a proposal on
the environmental impact of allowing companies to conduct
seismic testing in Atlantic Coast waters, which would help
determine available oil and natural gas resources.
The proposal will open for public comment for 45 days.
(Reporting by Tom Doggett)