Offshore Drilling a 'Purple' Issue in Swing-State Virginia

Offshore Drilling a 'Purple' Issue in Swing-State Virginia

From the 1968 through 2004 presidential elections, the Republican candidate consistently won more of Virginia's votes than any of his rivals. That changed in 2008, however, as the majority of voters in this once reliably "red" state switched to the "blue" column, awarding Democrat Barack Obama the commonwealth's 13 electoral votes.

Now Virginia is considered to be one of several "purple" swing states. Polls suggest it could again support Obama or tilt back to its former "red" status, awarding its electoral votes to GOP challenger Mitt Romney.

Although determining which direction the Old Dominion State will turn in this year's election remains a guessing game, less ambiguity surrounds where many of Virginia's elected officials and major candidates stand on a key energy issue. The matter of allowing companies to drill for oil and gas offshore Virginia has drawn support from those in the "red" as well as "blue" camps, making it a unifying "purple" issue.

"We want Virginia to be the East Coast energy leader," Virginia Lieutenant Gov. Bill Bolling said Thursday at the 2012 Virginia Energy Summit in Richmond.

"We would love to be able to develop our offshore energy resources."

Bolling predicted that drilling for oil and natural gas offshore Virginia could be the "single-largest energy impact on the state in years."

In an entry last week on his blog, Bolling's fellow GOP state officeholder Gov. Bob McDonnell remarked that offshore oil and gas exploration and development would create "thousands of new, good-paying jobs for Virginians."

A 2011 Wood Mackenzie study for the American Petroleum Institute estimates that commencing leasing, drilling and development activity offshore Virginia could generate roughly 16,400 direct and indirect jobs by 2020.

Two prominent Virginia Democrats in Washington, D.C., have been leading efforts on Capitol Hill to make offshore drilling a reality. In the process, U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb are taking a stance at odds with the Obama administration.

In May 2010, following the Macondo well blowout, the administration cancelled plans for Lease Sale 220 - an approximately 2.9 million-acre tract in the Mid-Atlantic Planning Area offshore Virginia. The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement has estimated the area may contain 130 million barrels of oil and 1.14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

In November 2011, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the agency's Five-Year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program; the agency excluded Lease 220 from the proposed program. The majority of the state's congressional delegation urged Salazar to include offshore Virginia in the program, but their plea have failed to yield the desired action.

As co-sponsors of the Offshore Petroleum Expansion Now Act of 2012 (S.3438), Warner and Webb are trying to use the legislative process to reverse the administration's decision and open the offshore Virginia acreage for leasing.

During Thursday's summit, sponsored by the Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA), the Republican author of legislation that created Virginia's official energy policy questioned the Obama administration's commitment to developing all of the country's energy resources - conventional and alternative. The Obama campaign prominently touts an "all of the above" approach to achieving energy independence.

"It's easy to say all the right things, but he hasn't done the right things," State Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach said, adding that the administration has focused too heavily on renewables. "We need a President who truly will embrace the 'all of the above' approach."

A summit speaker who supports Obama's reelection said that he favors a broad-based energy mix that includes fossil fuels - produced in part from offshore development - and renewables.

"We need everything in our grid," said Terry McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and now a renewable energy entrepreneur and electric car manufacturer.

McAuliffe unsuccessfully ran to become the Democrats' candidate in the 2009 Virginia governor's race, and he has said that he may launch another gubernatorial bid next year. He expressed support for weaning the country off energy imports and using domestically produced natural gas in the United States rather than exporting it. He pointed out that keeping U.S. natural gas stateside would support the creation of manufacturing jobs.

"We ought to do every possible thing we can do to get our gas prices down and our energy prices down," said McAuliffe, who added that natural gas development would spur job creation and fill government coffers with tax revenues for education and other purposes.

"It's sitting there and it's an asset."

CEA's Southeast Energy Alliance chapter in 2010 released a report on drilling offshore Virginia. Click here to view the report.

Matthew V. Veazey has written about the oil and gas industry since 2000. Email Matthew at


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