- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2008

WILLIAMSBURG | Scientists are beginning to assess what they know — and what they don’t — about the environmental consequences of drilling for gas and oil in a triangular section of the Atlantic Ocean off Virginia’s coast.

What they learn could open more Southern coastal waters to drilling.

The government began a two-day workshop Wednesday for researchers and scientists to discuss drilling’s impact on sea life and commercial and recreational fishing, along with other environmental and economic issues. The proposed drilling would occur 50 miles from shore in an area believed to contain 130 million barrels of oil and 1.14 trillion cubic feet of gas.

“We have some of the top scientists from the East Coast here to inform us on the environmental information that’s available as well as data gaps,” said Jim Cimato of the Minerals Management Service, a bureau of the Department of the Interior.

Many of the scientists said climate change is just one factor that has altered some research that dates back decades. Science on some species is also either lacking or incomplete.

“Seabirds could be dramatically affected by an oil spill, but we have no data,” said Scott Krauss of the New England Aquarium in Boston.

Mr. Krauss offered detailed research on the impact of ship traffic on whales and sea turtles and the “rising tide of noises” in the acoustic spaces of dolphins and whales. He showed illustrations of how the effective range of whale communication has dramatically shrunk in some busy seas.

The Bush administration has pushed forward with the leasing of waters off Virginia’s coast, and President-elect Barack Obama has said he would support a limited expansion of offshore oil and natural gas development.

House Democratic leaders have backed that position, stating last month they would not seek to reinstate a quarter-century ban on drilling in 85 percent of the nation’s offshore federal waters from New England to the Pacific Northwest.

Currently, virtually all Outer Continental Shelf drilling occurs in the central and western Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. Cimato said the proposed lease sale wouldn’t occur until late 2011 or 2012.

“We have a few years to do some environmental research that would inform our resource management decision-makers,” he said.

The offshore waters identified for possible drilling cover 2.9 million acres over a wedge-shaped region that is 50 miles wide nearest the Virginia shore. The area discussed by scientists Wednesday generally included a wider swath of the mid-Atlantic shore.

The area is part of a rich commercial fishing grounds that include scallops, crabs and an expanding shellfish-growing area off Virginia’s shore.

Private fishing trips totaled nearly 14 million last year, and area beaches attract more than 9 million visitors, researchers said. Another area to be researched includes archaeological artifacts, such as shipwrecks.

So far, the area off Virginia is the only one identified by the government for oil and gas development, but Mr. Cimato said that could change.

“Certainly if we demonstrate that we can manage things properly and safely,” he said, “we can show it can occur elsewhere in a safe way.”

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