- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Virginia political leaders, including its two Democratic U.S. senators, criticized the Obama administration’s decision Tuesday to keep the state out of the latest five-year offshore oil and gas leasing plan, calling it an economic blow to the state.

The bipartisan disappointment followed Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar’s cautious approach to opening more areas in the Gulf of Mexico and off Alaska, leaving the East Coast and Virginia out of the running to explore underwater energy reserves. The administration initially said it would explore drilling in the Atlantic.

Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has pushed hard to open waters off Virginia to oil and gas exploration, cast the decision as undermining the state’s ambitious energy policy and job development, and he sharply criticized the Obama administration. He urged Congress to pass legislation introduced by Sens. Jim Webb and Mark R. Warner to allow exploration off Virginia.

“Today’s decision will prevent the creation of thousands of new jobs for our citizens,” Mr. McDonnell said in a statement, calling the decision “another glaring example of the abysmal failure of the Obama administration to develop a comprehensive national energy policy.”

In separate statements, Mr. Webb and Mr. Warner also urged the Obama administration to reconsider its decision.

“As we work to address our energy future here in Congress, it is important to note the administration’s existing authority to include Virginia in the current five-year lease plan, and I once again urge the president to exercise that authority,” Mr. Webb said.

Mr. Salazar’s proposal will offer 15 lease sales for areas in the Gulf of Mexico, including two in the eastern Gulf, and three off Alaska’s coast from 2012 to 2017.

The sales off Alaska would be the first since 2008, and one Gulf lease is a sliver about 150 miles off the Florida coast. The rest of the eastern Gulf is off-limits because of a congressional moratorium.

The Alaska sales will occur late in the five-year time frame to allow for scientific evaluations in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, which Interior Department officials called a “frontier” for drilling. And they would avoid areas with cultural and environmental sensitivities, officials said.

“The approach we are taking there is a cautious one,” Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said of the Arctic leases.

Virginia had been banking on a lease sale of offshore tracts by 2012, but planned East Coast exploration was delayed at least until 2017 after the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The current exploration area about 50 miles off Virginia’s coast encompasses 2.9 million acres. The government estimates the area can produce 130 million barrels of oil and 1.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, but seismic studies haven’t been conducted there in decades, and the oil industry says new exploration technology could forecast much higher gas and oil reserves than previously thought.

Environmentalists are skeptical, and contend that offshore drilling is an environmental risk to tourism and fishing. They argue that estimates of oil and gas potential off Virginia represent just a sip compared with the nation’s big thirst for energy.

The environmental group Oceana called the decision “good news for the Atlantic coast. However, the Arctic and the Gulf are still in harm’s way,” said Jacqueline Savitz, senior campaign director for Oceana.

“We still have not learned our lesson from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which continues to foul the Gulf of Mexico,” she said in a statement.

Wilderness Society President William H. Meadow also criticized the entire program, saying in a statement the lease plan “continues to take America down the road of putting big oil first, threatening our few remaining pristine areas with drilling and spilling.”

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