Virginia lawmakers split over offshore drilling
The Virginia congressional delegation is generally split along party lines over whether the federal government should allow oil and gas drilling off the state’s coast.
The issue reemerged last week when President Trump signed an executive order that aimed to reverse an Obama administration moratorium on extracting fuel from the ocean floor.
Proponents say offshore drilling would create jobs and drive economic development, while opponents say the environmental and national security risks outweigh the potential benefits.
The state’s Democratic members of Congress — Reps. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, Gerald E. Connolly, Don Beyer and Donald A. McEachin — oppose drilling.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D) once supported drilling but started to reconsider last March after hearing concerns from the Department of Defense and constituents in Hampton Roads, Virginia Beach and elsewhere. By the time he joined Hillary Clinton’s presidential ticket last summer, Kaine was opposed. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) say they support drilling on the condition that current law is changed to give Virginia a share of the revenue.
Republican members say they favor drilling — except for Rep. Scott W. Taylor, who is undecided. Reps. Barbara Comstock and Dave Brat have introduced bills that, if passed, would make it easier to drill.
About a month ago, Comstock introduced a bill that would require three lease sales in an area off the coast of Virginia in an initial five-year period and two additional sales in every five-year-period after that. Her bill would suspend environmental reviews until 2022, although drilling would remain subject to several federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Gulf states currently have an agreement with the federal government that requires 37.5 percent of the revenue from drilling off their coasts to be turned over to the states. The rest goes to the U.S. Treasury.
Under Comstock’s bill, the federal government would enter into a similar deal. Virginia Reps. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) and Morgan H. Griffith (R-Va.) have signed on as co-sponsors.
“This will inevitably help keep the tax burden lower for Northern Virginia while paying for transportation projects and investing in continued research in renewable energy resources through the Virginia Costal Energy Research Consortium,” Comstock’s spokesman, Jeff Marschner, said in a statement.
The bill may appear to be an odd choice for Comstock, who represents a landlocked Northern Virginia district and who does not serve on the House Natural Resources Committee. But as a state delegate in 2010, Comstock voted for legislation to allow exploration and drilling off the coast, with the bulk of the state’s proceeds directed to transportation projects. Marschner, her spokesman, wrote in an email that Comstock believes in an “all of the above” approach to energy policy.
“I think she’s trying to do as much as she can do to burnish her bona fides as a market Republican,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.
Four Democrats have lined up to compete for the party nomination to challenge her in 2018. Given the interest her seat is already generating, he said, her choices will be driven “by the fact that she’s going to be in the fight of her life for reelection.”
Kidd’s center conducted the latest public opinion poll on offshore drilling and found a stark partisan divide. About three-quarters of Republicans were supportive, while 68 percent of Democrats were opposed.
Brat, a Freedom Caucus member who represents suburban Richmond, introduced a bill Wednesday that would allow drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, reversing Obama’s ban.
Wittman, who worked in environmental health before joining Congress and sits on the House Natural Resources Committee, said problems that led to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion could be avoided today. He is a co-sponsor of Brat’s bill.
“Being able to use our offshore energy resources, I think, is critical, including natural gas and oil that’s there in the ocean floor off the coast of Virginia,” he said.
But Scott said the potential damage to the multibillion-dollar industries of tourism, fisheries and recreation is not worth the risk posed by drilling.
“It’s hard to imagine why anybody in Virginia would support offshore drilling after the experience in New Orleans,” he said, referring to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which took place in the Gulf of Mexico and caused the largest marine spill in U.S. history.
“People talk about creating jobs, but all you need is one big explosion and you create a lot of cleanup jobs.”
More than 120 municipalities, including Accomack and Northampton counties, oppose offshore drilling, citing threats to marine life, coastal communities and local economies, according to the advocacy group Oceana. The Virginia Beach restaurant and hotel associations also are opposed.
Beyer and Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (R-N.J.) on Thursday introduced a bill that would block permits on the Atlantic seaboard for seismic blasting used by petroleum companies in surveying. The lawmakers say the practice hurts marine species on which many coastal communities depend.
Beyer, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee who represents a liberal swath of Northern Virginia, said he worried about Trump’s executive actions.
“It could be a different environment in a number of weeks,” he said.
Connolly, another Northern Virginia Democrat, added that the Navy, which operates its largest base in Norfolk, said offshore drilling would interfere with most of its training exercises. Between the military’s concerns and the potential environmental risk, drilling “would be a tragic mistake,” he said. “If the worst happened, it would mean catastrophic and immeasurable damage.”
Taylor, a former Navy SEAL and first-term Republican representing Virginia Beach, said he leans in favor of drilling, but there are too many unanswered questions for him to take a definitive position.
“It’s a big decision for our community and for Virginia,” he said.
Scott Clement contributed to this report, which has been updated.