Maryland, Virginia Members Disagree on Atlantic Oil Drilling

Posted February 27, 2015 at 2:51pm

The Obama administration’s recent proposal to lease oil and gas drilling in a swath of the Atlantic Ocean generated the expected mix of cheers and jeers on Capitol Hill, but local reaction was mostly divided along state borders rather than party affiliations.

Marylanders are reluctant, while Virginians appear to want to charge ahead, especially if it might mean more cash in their state coffers.

Most Maryland members of Congress oppose drilling because they fear the effects of an oil spill would be catastrophic to the Chesapeake Bay, a major driver of the state’s economy in commercial fishing and tourism.

“The return you get for doing it is pretty limited against the potential risks that it presents, and I would have thought the administration would have reached the same conclusion about that,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md.

Meanwhile, many Virginia politicians from both parties favor exploring the sea floor off its shores for oil and gas, interested in the economic opportunities the industry could bring to the state.

“There’s an uncommon amount of unanimity here,” Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., said of the delegation’s perspective.

However, some fissures exist even among the bloc of Virginia Democrats and Republicans who have pushed for years for the federal government to greenlight Atlantic exploration.

The state’s Democratic senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, say their support hinges on expanding revenue sharing to include Virginia. That would mean a percentage of drilling and leasing proceeds would go to the states hosting the exploration rather than the U.S. Treasury, and it would require congressional approval.

But Rigell and Rep. Rob Wittman, another Virginia Republican, indicated in interviews that though they want their state to be guaranteed a greater share of the profits offshore oil could yield, they wouldn’t necessarily oppose drilling if Congress couldn’t pass legislation before oil and gas activity commenced off their shores.

“If I was given this choice of either we don’t have revenue sharing but we can have 25,000 very good-paying jobs with all the economic activity that’s generated, or nothing, then I’m thinking about those 25,000 jobs,” Rigell told CQ Roll Call. “I would accept that.”

Local opinion is important. “Input from state legislatures and governors is weighed very heavily as we approach these programs,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said when announcing the draft five-year drilling plan that includes the potential Atlantic lease sale. “Certainly in the Atlantic, that played a role.”

But opponents say the economic return from pumping oil from the ocean floor isn’t worth the risk, particularly given the restrictions that would be placed upon drillers due to shipping lanes and naval exercises that occur off the Virginia coast.

“You’re putting potentially at risk billions of dollars in the form of the presence of the Navy in Hampton Roads, because offshore oil drills — rigs — are potentially a real threat to the Navy’s operations, and they’ve said so,” said Democratic Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, one of the few Virginia members who oppose drilling offshore.

Jewell said Interior would include a 50-mile coastal buffer in the potential sale, which wouldn’t occur until at least 2021. That would minimize any disruptions to the military and commercial activities that occur in those waters, she said. A Navy official said the military branch will assess Interior’s proposal for the compatibility of leasing with offshore operations and training.

The Virginia delegation has pushed for years for the executive branch to allow exploration off its coast and for their congressional colleagues to broaden the reach of the current revenue-sharing law to include their state. Warner and Kaine, both former governors, say they aren’t “fully on board” with Atlantic drilling unless Virginia gets a share of the profits.

“Virginia has been supportive of this, but it’s all based upon, there would be revenue sharing — not only to the states, but also to the Land and [Water] Conservation Fund,” Kaine said.

Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe also backs oil and gas activity off the state’s coast, but that support “is based on an expectation” that revenue sharing is expanded to include Virginia, spokeswoman Christina Nuckols said in an email.

“It’s a bipartisan issue in Virginia, but we also feel very strongly that Virginia needs to be treated on an equal playing field, or on a level playing field, with our Gulf state counterparts,” Wittman said.

But he wouldn’t go so far as to say everyone’s support for the lease sale is contingent upon revenue sharing being expanded.

“It’s a very important part of what we want to have considered,” Wittman said.

That doesn’t mean Virginia members will back down from their push. They still have several years — and a new administration — to work on the issue before rigs might even show up near the Tidewater region.

“I don’t want to misrepresent that we’re not going to fight for it,” Rigell said. “We will.”

The Marylanders remain unswayed. Sarbanes said he understands the “allure” of revenue sharing and the benefits it could reap for a state, but he’s not convinced they outweigh the risks involved in this case — and doesn’t like the idea of basing energy development decisions on it.

“You’ve got to pick the source of your revenue carefully,” Sarbanes said.