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.”
Shiva Polefka is a Research Associate for Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress where Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy.