Shiva Polefka is a Research Associate for Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress where Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy.
Yesterday Terry McAuliffe, Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, revealed newfound support for oil and gas exploration off the Commonwealth’s coast. The Washington Post reported that he now backs legislation sponsored by Virginia’s Democratic U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine that would open offshore areas to oil and gas exploration.
Offshore oil drilling is viewed by Virginia politicians on both sides of the aisle as a budgetary panacea, in part because of the economic activity drilling would create, but perhaps more so because the Warner-Kaine bill would direct a portion of drilling royalties back into the commonwealth’s coffers. But the bottom line is that any development carries with it massive risk to the state’s environment and the current economic drivers that rely on healthy and accessible oceans and coasts.
A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers analysis of Virginia’s tourism industry reported that the sector supports more than 200,000 jobs, yielding an economic impact of more than $20 billion in 2011, and that Virginia’s beaches alone attracted nearly 10 percent of the state’s tourists. Virginia’s coast and ocean also support thriving fisheries; in 2011 fishermen landed 247,000 tons of seafood in Virginia, worth more than $191 million, ranking it the third largest seafood producer in the country by weight.
As Gulf Coast states painfully learned in 2010’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, offshore drilling accidents can devastate robust tourism industries, the health of marine ecosystems, and both the productivity and the reputation of the marine fisheries supported by those ecosystems. Unfortunately, Congress has so far failed to pass any reforms to reduce the risk of spills or blowouts, meaning the few regulatory reforms made by the Department of the Interior to improve offshore drilling safety in the aftermath of the Gulf spill could be rolled back by a future administration.
Drilling offshore Virginia would also be incompatible with another vital activity carried out along the state’s coast — keeping our nation safe. Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval complex in the world, is one of the state’s primary economic engines, supporting more than 71,000 military and civilian employees. Overall the Navy was responsible for more nearly $15 billion in economic impact in Virginia in fiscal year 2009.
In 2010 the US Department of Defense determined that 74 percent of the areas eyed for oil and gas leasing offshore Virginia would directly interfere with the extensive military activities that are carried out in the region, including ordnance training and aircraft carrier operations. As Virginia Representative James Moran put it, “When you come down to it, the Navy’s operations are much more important to the Virginia economy, let alone national security, than … drilling operations.”
Furthermore, most of the areas where the Navy did not find potential conflicts are either in major shipping lanes or off the northern part of the coast where Virginia’s desire to drill would come into conflict with their neighbors in Maryland where the sentiment is distinctly anti-drilling. After watching the oil gush in the Gulf of Mexico unchecked for more than a month, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley took an unequivocal stance, saying “I would be opposed to any drilling off the Chesapeake Bay.”
Virginia can still look to the ocean to shape its energy future, but rather than drilling for oil, the Commonwealth should be pursuing offshore wind energy development. McAuliffe’s campaign website notes that Virginia’s offshore wind resource could generate up to 3,200 megawatts of electricity “in just the 25 most promising offshore parcels” — development that would support as many as 11,600 jobs. Furthermore, the Department of the Interior’s “Smart from the Start” program has already identified sites for wind turbines off Virginia’s coast that would not conflict with either military operations or the shipping industry. As CAP has reported, offshore wind holds vast promise for producing clean energy at modest prices that will be stable over the long term — much more than can be said for oil or natural gas.
Rather than looking to the industries of the past and falling victim to another black gold rush that would compromise Virginia’s robust blue economy, Virginia’s leaders should instead look to a proven source of homegrown energy development that will create new jobs without jeopardizing current ones or contributing to our nation’s unsustainable thirst for climate-altering fossil fuels. Prioritizing development and protection of the state’s existing coastal-dependent industries like tourism, and fishing, and its world class military emplacements, while boosting support for renewable energy development is a common-sense approach to moving one of America’s most historic states toward a brighter economic future.