Maryland's senators and environmental activists are vowing to oppose President Barack Obama's move to expand oil and gas exploration off the state's Atlantic coast, warning that it could hurt tourism in Ocean City, threaten fish and wildlife along relatively unspoiled Assateague Island and foul the Chesapeake Bay.
Drilling off the Mid-Atlantic coast would not begin for years, if ever, and was part of a broader energy strategy the president outlined Wednesday at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. But it raised the hackles of some members of Maryland's congressional delegation and local environmental groups, who have generally supported the Obama administration's push for developing renewable energy.
Democratic Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski issued a joint statement voicing their opposition to expanded drilling off the East Coast. In an interview, Cardin said oil spills could have a devastating impact on the state's fisheries, tourism in Ocean City and the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
Environment Maryland's Tommy Landers said he was "outraged" by the proposal.
"There is no need to threaten our beaches, wildlife and tourism with oil spills and pollution when we have much better solutions," Landers said, such as fuel-efficient cars, plug-in vehicle technology and public transportation.
Cardin, a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, declined to speculate on Obama's reasons for proposing offshore energy development off the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. But it appeared calculated to woo Republican support for the administration's climate-change and clean-energy initiative, which has languished in the Senate after winning approval in the House.
"It makes it more complicated for those of us who are trying to get energy legislation passed," said Cardin. "I don't find him putting offshore out there the way he did to be helpful."
And Cardin warned that the president might lose his support for the bill. "If it were to open up drilling beyond what I see as appropriate, yes, it could be a deal-breaker," he said.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, who was present at Obama's announcement, has opposed oil and gas exploration off Maryland's coast, though he's joined with other Mid-Atlantic governors in pushing for offshore wind turbines. Spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said O'Malley remains opposed to offshore drilling but has faith that the Obama administration will be "guided by the science" in deciding whether to go forward.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the Obama administration is moving ahead with previously announced plans to lease Atlantic waters off Virginia for oil and gas exploration. Last year, the federal Minerals Management Service invited expressions of interest from energy companies for a 2.9 million-acre area 50 miles off the coast. Salazar said further evaluation is needed of potential environmental impact and of possible interference with shipping or military activities, but the administration hopes to make a final determination by early 2012.
Drilling off Maryland or anywhere else along the East Coast will take longer to decide, Salazar said, and depend on public input and environmental-impact studies that have not begun. But the U.S. government is looking to commission seismic studies along the outer continental shelf off the East Coast, to provide better clues about the potential for finding oil or gas.
Federal geologists estimate that the eastern Gulf, Atlantic coast and portions of Alaska under consideration for leasing could contain 39 billion to 63 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil - enough to last nine years at current consumption rates - and 168 trillion to 294 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
But environmental groups say the extra fuel isn't worth the risks, and that even if drilling is limited to waters off Virginia, Maryland could be hurt by spills.
The area under consideration for leasing begins just south of the Maryland line and extends nearly to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, and most of the state's congressional delegation, have endorsed drilling, saying they're eager to have Virginia be the first state on the East Coast to produce oil or gas from off its coast.
But others say there's too great a risk of environmental harm, despite improvements in drilling technology. Striped bass, American shad and other fish migrate along the Atlantic coast before returning to bay rivers to spawn in the spring, and the ocean waters off the mouth of the bay are a vital nursery for blue crabs. Spills could devastate the crab population and the bay's fishing industry, said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker.
He called it "a terrible irony" that Obama would back something that could pollute the bay, after his having issued an executive order last year pledging his administration's help in restoring the Chesapeake.