Drilling for oil and gas off the Atlantic coast is far from a foregone conclusion, but exploration is a start.
The Obama Administration recently announced it's going to allow sonar testing off the coasts of Virginia and Maryland to see how much oil and gas is out there. Lawmakers in the region are divided over a change they sense coming to the moratorium on drilling off the commonwealth's coast.
Republicans don't see much in President Obama's energy policy they like. But the announcement that companies can now apply to test how much oil and gas is sitting off the Eastern Shore brought cheers from the GOP, including one of his staunchest critics in the commonwealth, Congressman Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), whose district encompasses the state’s southwestern coalfields.
“I think the President got one right. A little late and not as much as I would do, but I'm going to give him credit for getting one right," Griffith says.
The move by the administration doesn't touch the moratorium on drilling that's in place. But Congressman Rob Wittman (R-Va.) says it's a vital first step.
“Oh absolutely. Yeah I think exploration is a critical part of that. You know the old exploration data is decades old. You do have to have new information," Wittman says.
Before oil rigs can ever be erected offshore, companies need to know what lies underneath the surface. To get that data, companies will use sonar blasts that are a hundred times louder than jet engines. Even the Obama Administration scientists who approved the tests admit the sonar blasts will harm more than a 100,000 creatures, like whales and sea turtles that are endangered.
Congressman Jim Moran (D-Va.) says the whole endeavor is being driven by dollar signs, not science.
"Obviously there is economic pressure that has built to develop along the eastern seaboard," Moran says. "I know the most about Virginia and I just think that it’s fraught with peril."
Supporters say it’s a trade off though. Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.) has advocated for offshore drilling for years. He says the exploration process needs to go forward even though endangered sea creatures will likely die or be maimed in the process.
“They could, I mean you know again doing seismic activity will help you determine the size of a reserve and then that — again it’s a cost-benefit calculation," Kaine says.
The move to allow exploration for oil and gas reserves from Delaware to Florida is seen by many supporters as paving the way for leases to drill being awarded in 2018. Congressman Moran says opening up the state’s coast to drilling will hurt the commonwealth’s traditional industries.
“I think it’s a mistake in Virginia. I think it raises too much risk to the tourist industry particularly along Virginia Beach. I think it has potential risk for the shipping industry, which I said we have a substantial shipping channel and most importantly we have a major U.S. Naval presence," Moran says.
But many proponents of offshore drilling say the administration is merely trying to quiet critics ahead of November’s elections, and they doubt the administration is considering lifting the ban on coastal drilling.