- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 4, 2010

RICHMOND (AP) — Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s push to drill for gas and oil off Virginia’s coast faces two formidable obstacles: the Navy and NASA.

Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base, and the space agency’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore have activities — some potentially hazardous — throughout the vast leasing area 50 miles off Virginia’s 132-mile Atlantic coast.

The question is: Can busy skies and seas coexist with offshore oil and gas drilling?

President Obama opened the East Coast to offshore energy exploration last week, putting Virginia at the head of the line to explore 2.9 million of the 167 million acres of ocean from Delaware to Florida. The decision was booed by environmentalists, who fear drilling will foul ocean waters and disturb marine life, such as endangered right whales, which migrate along the coast.

Those environmental considerations will be looked at before any drilling occurs, but Navy ships that sail the area and rockets launched from Wallops also will be part of the deliberations.

U.S Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who met with Mr. McDonnell last week in Richmond, is mindful of those existing Atlantic activities that could be limited by sprouting oil exploration platforms and the sea traffic to service them.

“I think those are significant issues that need to be addressed in the environmental process we’re going through over the next year and a half,” Mr. Salazar told the Associated Press in an interview Friday. “We’ll have to see whether or not the conflicts between the military needs, which are primary, can coexist with oil and gas developments.

Five nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are among the more than 60 ships based at Norfolk, which also has 165 aircraft. The Navy has said it wants a say in any offshore drilling plans, and Mr. McDonnell said last week he plans to sit down with Navy brass to discuss their concerns.

Wallops, which is being promoted as “the Cape Canaveral of the North,” already has expressed concerns about energy exploration off Virginia’s coast. The leasing area, slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut, lies within the launch range of the NASA facility.

In a filing before Mr. Obama’s announcement with the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, NASA said some exercises conducted with the Navy involve missiles and drone vehicles launched at low altitudes and at supersonic speeds.

“Impact with an oil platform would cause catastrophic damage and would result in the complete loss of expensive launch vehicles,” NASA said.

Wallops Flight Facility, which began as a flight test site in 1945, totals 6,000 acres and employs approximately 1,700 NASA and contract workers. The launch center also is home to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, which is operated by Maryland and Virginia.

Commercial supply missions to the International Space Station are scheduled to be launched in 2011 from Wallops by Orbital Sciences Corp. under a $1.9 billion contract from NASA.

The space agency also conducts science, technology and educational launches from Wallops.

In addition to the risk of damaging oil rigs, “there is also the additional risk to the environment for massive petroleum or gas release into coastal waters in the case of a launch mishap impacting oil or gas infrastructure,” NASA said in its report.

Wallops, the Coast Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration make sure the seas and the skies are clear before a scheduled launch.

While the NASA filing seeks no offshore drilling activity in the launch zone, a spokesman for Wallops said discussions are planned to determine how the two activities can coexist.

“We don’t really know enough about what the plans are,” spokesman Keith A. Koehler said. “We need to work with everybody to see how we can do this.”

Asked about the potential conflicts, Mr. McDonnell said through a spokesman that the administration is confident it can address any concerns raised by Wallops and NASA.

McDonnell has made offshore energy, including wind turbines, a cornerstone of his effort to establish Virginia as a player in the U.S. energy market. He’s also banking heavily on Wallops’ commercial expansion.

In his State of the Commonwealth address in January, Mr. McDonnell vowed to “make Wallops Island the top commercial spaceport in America.”

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