Virginia will be first in line to take advantage of the Obama administration's decision to open up large swaths of the Eastern seaboard to oil and natural gas drilling, clearing the way for energy exploration 50 miles off the state's coastline.
Gov. Bob McDonnell and other Virginia officials hailed the announcement Wednesday, while environmental groups reaffirmed their concerns about leasing the nearly 3 million-acre stretch of ocean that has long been closed to oil platforms.
The triangular area could yield 130 million barrels of oil and 1.14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to estimates from the Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service. Last year, the United States consumed more than 18 million barrels of oil and more than 62 billion cubic feet of natural gas each day.
"The president's decision to allow energy exploration off Virginia's coast will mean thousands of new jobs, hundreds of millions in new state revenue and tens of billions of dollars in economic impact for the commonwealth," McDonnell said. "It will also help our nation take a further step towards energy independence."
McDonnell campaigned heavily on the idea of bolstering Virginia's energy production, advocating an "all of the above" approach emulated by other Republican candidates.
A lease sale for the site has long been in the works for 2011, although former Gov. Tim Kaine last year had asked the Obama administration for a delay.
Environmentalists say the move will do nothing to end the nation's dependency on oil and risks disrupting offshore ecosystems in exchange for uncertain revenues. The endangered right whale, for example, could be harmed by seismic testing associated with drilling survey work as it migrates up and down the Atlantic Coast, said Glen Besa, director of the Sierra Club's Virginia chapter.
"There are a lot of environmental unknowns with respect to this area because there hasn't been much research done," he said. "We would hope that there won't be a rush to judgment with respect to drilling, and the necessary environmental analysis will be done."
The governor last month signed a bill that would earmark 80 percent of Virginia's royalties and revenues from offshore drilling to transportation funding and the rest to the renewable energy research. Congress, however, must approve a revenue-sharing plan for the state before it can see any windfall from the drilling. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., last week introduced the Virginia Access to Energy Act that would split the revenues equally between the state and federal government. Sen. Jim Webb said he would introduce revenue-sharing legislation as well.