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The Ongoing Offshore Oil Drilling Debate

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The federal government has cleared the way for oil exploration and drilling off the coast of Virginia, but a public hearing period is underway, and citizens are invited to share their views before any land is leased or any permits issued. 

The oil industry hasn’t been allowed to do studies off our coast for forty years, but at the Virginia Petroleum Council, Mike Ward claims there are a half billion barrels of oil and 2.4 trillion cubic feet of gas buried below the ocean floor.

“That means you could drive all the cars in Virginia for 4 years, or you could heat all the homes in Virginia for 11 years, so it’s significant, and that’s just based on the old data.”

And if drilling were allowed, he says, it would spark an economy that’s struggling with defense department cuts.

“Think of it as a huge construction project off Virginia’s coast.  Any time a big construction project happens you have not only the people building the project but people supplying what’s needed for the project.”

On the other hand, a large oil spill would likely hurt our economy according to Michael Livermore, an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Law.

“It could mean people are laid off.  It could just mean a local business owner enjoys smaller profits or shuts down. It could mean local tourism takes a hit.”

That’s the kind of thing industry routinely considers when making decisions, and there are formulas that factor in risk.  Sometimes, he says, companies conclude it’s wiser and in the long run more profitable to wait.

“The oil is going to be there in the next five year cycle and the five year cycle after that, and we learn about environmental risks and technology gets better as we wait, and so that value of delay is what the agency has failed to consider properly.”

And the Department of the Interior, which makes decisions about offshore drilling, might also want to factor in the effects of freeing more fossil fuels to be burned, putting more carbon into the atmosphere and accelerating climate change. 

Opponents say they’d rather see development dollars poured into energy sources that don’t pollute - like wind or solar, but the oil industry says that’s not realistic.

“The government says by 2040 we’re still going to need 62% of our energy to come from oil or gas, so we’ve got to go about finding that.”

The Interior Department invites your thoughts on the matter through March 30th.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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