WASHINGTON — Months after President George W. Bush and Congress lifted bans on offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, the federal government moved Thursday to pursue oil and natural gas exploration off the coast of Virginia.
The Interior Department began a public comment period on drafting an environmental-impact statement on offshore drilling. The environmental work is the first step in opening 2.9 million acres of waters to a lease sale scheduled for 2011. The area under consideration is at least 50 miles offshore.
The agency's move probably will be followed closely by environmental groups and states in the Southeast, along with business groups that are eager for more energy development.
"In some ways, North Carolina is the next place after Virginia that . . . the federal government would like to go," said Michael Gravitz, an oceans advocate for Environment America, a coalition of state organizations. "Virginia is the first chink in the Atlantic Coast armor."
The issue of offshore drilling dominated national and state political conversation through much of the past election season as energy costs skyrocketed and the economy worsened. Partisans chanted "Drill, baby, drill!" at Republican political rallies, while many Democrats parsed their words to sound open to some offshore drilling while promoting alternative energy.
Thursday's move was the first concrete action in Washington since Bush and Congress lifted years-old bans on drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf.
Polls find that most Americans want more domestic energy production, but many worry about the possible influence on coastlines that are relatively untouched by industry.
"We think it's a special favor for the oil industry before Bush leaves office," said Mike Daulton, the legislative director for Audubon D.C. "I think it invites oil spills and tourism-killing industrialization of the coast."
The federal Minerals Management Service, which handles oil and gas lease sales, said the area that was being studied had been included in the federal government's five-year plan at Virginia's request.
However, while the Virginia legislature passed a bill in 2006 welcoming exploration, it was only for natural gas, said Gordon Hickey, spokesman for Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine.
"That's the position of the governor, and that hasn't changed," Hickey said.
The Interior Department stressed that soliciting public comment doesn't mean that a lease sale will proceed.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, praised the action, saying that the agency is following the will of the public.
The announcement "is a small but important step forward on America's path to energy independence and comprehensive energy reform," Boehner said in a statement.
Some business leaders in the Southeast agreed.
"We consider this to be a positive movement," said Larry Wooten, the president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau.
He said farmers had been besieged not only with high fuel prices but also with rising costs for fertilizer and pesticide, both of which are made with natural gas. Increasing energy sources could help, he said.
"We need to push forward with all options, and offshore drilling is just one of them," Wooten said.
Studies show that offshore drilling won't lower gasoline prices for years. Energy companies now are promoting new exploration as a source of jobs.
"By opening up those areas offshore, it's going to provide our domestic companies access to getting those precious resources out of the ground and into the marketplace," said Chris Sheerman, spokesman for the Institute for Energy Research in Washington, which promotes domestic energy companies.
Many environmental groups hope that President-elect Barack Obama will reverse course or at least slow the push toward offshore drilling.
"Obama has said they would consider offshore drilling in the context of a comprehensive energy policy," Gravitz said. "We'd be hopeful they'd look at this and say, 'Eh, this doesn't fit.' "
Some officials are wary, too.
U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican whose district includes most of the state's coastline, said the Bush administration should wait and let the Obama administration develop a new energy policy. That way, he said, states might have more control.
"This is just a states' rights issue to me," Jones said. "You're making changes that could impact a state for years and years to come. I don't see why it cannot wait until next year."
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