Va. candidates back offshore gas drilling

They support end to ban on Atlantic exploration

October 11, 2005|By TOM PELTON | TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTER

Both major-party candidates for governor of Virginia say they support ending a federal moratorium on exploratory gas and oil drilling along the Atlantic coast, a move that environmentalists warn could pollute beaches in Maryland and elsewhere.

Congress has been debating an end to a quarter-century ban on Atlantic coast drilling to help lower natural gas prices that had been soaring even before hurricanes smashed Gulf Coast wells.

During a debate Sunday night in Richmond, Virginia's Republican candidate for governor, Jerry W. Kilgore, and Democrat Timothy M. Kaine both said the industry should be allowed to explore for gas off the coast.

"I think it's important that we as Virginians look for alternative sources of fuel rather than relying upon the foreign market, and I think that's the reason that we find ourselves facing high gas prices," Kilgore said in the studio of a Richmond television station.

Kaine said he supported study of the gas potential offshore to determine whether the government should consider allowing companies to start drilling.

"We need to do some exploration to determine what is there, and if it's worth our pursuing it further, recognizing there may be some environmental consequences," Kaine said. "Exploration is a good thing."

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Drilling in Maryland's portion of the Chesapeake Bay was banned in 1988, after an earlier federal moratorium on offshore drilling from Maine to Florida.

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican from Maryland's Eastern Shore, said yesterday that he saw nothing wrong with taking an inventory of gas and oil supplies off the Atlantic coast. But he added that any fuel under the ocean should "be kept as a reserve for future generations," while the U.S. pursues alternatives to oil and gas.

"It's ridiculous for us to waste time and money looking for more oil when we ought to be spending billions looking for alternatives," Gilchrest said.

Gilchrest noted that a proposal to end the 25-year-old moratorium on oil and gas exploration along the continental shelf was stripped from an energy bill approved Friday by the House of Representatives. Rep. Richard W. Pombo, a Republican from California, and his Natural Resources Committee support repealing the moratorium.

Mark Stultz, spokesman for the Natural Gas Supply Association, said that lifting the ban could bring gas prices down for average homeowners, who stand to be hurt this winter by record home-heating costs.

Hurricane Katrina's devastation of the Gulf Coast's oil and gas industry illustrated why America needs to open up more coastal areas for drilling, Stultz said.

"We've seen the effects of concentrating our offshore resources in one geographic area, and how that has contributed to our vulnerability to supply disruption," Stultz said.

But Elliott Negin, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, warned that the beaches of Ocean City and Assateague Island National Seashore could be polluted by drilling along the Atlantic shore.

"Why destroy valuable fishing and recreational areas for the sake of drilling for oil and gas?" Negin asked. "The only people who will benefit are the oil companies."

The Virginia legislature voted in February in favor of a bill that required the state's lobbyists to ask Congress to end the federal moratorium on drilling and allow states to make their own decisions.

This bill was vetoed in March by Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat.

Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia and the moderator of Sunday night's debate, said the state legislature appeared likely to pass similar legislation this winter. And both major candidates to replace Warner have now suggested that they would sign a bill to encourage gas exploration.

"The old slogan is, `Virginia is open for business,'" Sabato said. "No matter who is in power in Virginia, what business wants, business usually gets."

This worries environmentalists such as Michael Town, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. "When you decide to drill off your coast, you are changing the whole economy and natural environment of your coastal community. And there are very negative things that come with that, including spills and increased tanker traffic," Town said.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Chris Guy contributed to this article.

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