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Some Republicans And Democrats Find Common Ground In Opposition To Offshore Drilling

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(State Lands Commission via AP)
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A bipartisan group of lawmakers from Virginia are upset over the Interior Department’s plans to open up waters off the East Coast to oil and gas drilling.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is under fire from lawmakers up and down the east coast who oppose his plan to allow oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. But the anger turned to outrage last week when Florida was given a waiver that blocks drilling off that states shores.

“Virginia is entitled to the same waiver,” says Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine. Zinke reversed course for Florida after meeting with that state's Republican Governor, who is expected to run for Senate later this year. Kaine says if Zinke is right and the local voices opposed to drilling matter in Florida than they should matter in Virginia too.  

“Our governor is against it. Bipartisan legislative delegation is against it. The largest city in Virginia, Virginia Beach, that’s right there on the shore, they used to have a position in favor and they switched a couple years ago to against it," Kaine continued. "Tourism industry against. DOD against it. Aquaculture, waterman against it. NASA shoots rockets out of Wallops Island, they’re against it, so local voices should matter in Virginia too.”

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Credit House of Representatives
Rep. Scott Taylor

Republican Congressman Scott Taylor represents the Second District, which includes Virginia Beach and parts of Newport News. He says drilling could actually hurt the economy in his district. “In our district we have two big industries: Tourism. Military," Taylor noted. "There’s a problem with national security with it, and the tourism industry is very much against it.”

Taylor was undecided on drilling, but he says he was convinced in part because of the Defense Department's concern that  drilling rigs could interfere with Navy training exercises in the region.

“I was on the fence quite frankly," Taylor admits. "I was undecided this year, because I would like to see what’s out there, and certainly with gas, not necessarily with oil but with gas. There’s no gas spillage. But I have to take everything in its totality and I have to listen to my people and that’s why I came to that conclusion.”

But some Republicans in the Commonwealth are eager for coastal drilling. Congressman Morgan Griffith represents the coal fields in the south west part of the state. He says Virginia lawmakers would be foolish to try to block drilling. “I’ve always been for it," Griffith said. "We believe we have a big pool of natural gas out there. We need to get out there and explore. Everybody worries about oil, but the real riches are in natural gas.”

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Credit (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Andrew Vaughan)
The jack-up rig Rowan Gorilla III is loaded on to the semi-submersible heavy lift ship Triumph in Halifax harbor in 2011. The rig was drilling on the Deep Panuke natural gas development offshore Nova Scotia.

Griffith says the U. S. will lose out if there isn’t drilling because the oil and gas reserves stretch all the way to southern Canada. Canadians, he says, are not sitting this out. “They’ve already got their straw in and they’re drinking and we’re letting them get the wealth.”

Still, the  majority of Virginia lawmakers are opposed to drilling. Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner says the Trump administration never even reached out to local voices and if they had they’d likely have come to a different conclusion. “It’s not worth the risk of the reward, Warner said. "And frankly, with the price of oil even it’s not economically viable as well. This is one more example of an administration who shoots first and asks questions later.”

Warner also argues the new plan wouldn’t necessarily benefit Virginia itself, just the oil and gas industry. “This is a complete nonstarter because it doesn’t even include a revenue sharing.”

The proposal from the Trump administration is a draft, making it still open to public comment in the coming months, and most Virginia lawmakers are expected to give the administration an earful.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

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