Virginia Republicans Back Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration, With Some Reservations

May 14, 2019

The Trump administration has sent conflicting messages on its plan for oil and gas drilling off Virginia’s coast. But it now seems to be moving ahead with plans to explore the reserves sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic.

That’s music to the ears of the state’s four Republicans in Congress.

Earlier this spring a federal judge shot down President Trump’s plan to expand offshore oil and gas drilling off the east coast. Then the Interior secretary signaled they were backing down and stopping exploration plans before he reversed himself and said they’re moving forward with laying out their five-year plan to drill off the East Coast.

“I am in support of it, if it can be done safely,” says Ben Cline, a freshman Republican who represents Roanoke, Lynchburg and the Shenandoah Valley.

Credit Rog Cogswell / Creative Commons

Cline was down in the Gulf of Mexico last month touring the offshore industry there.  He says he “learned how safe it is and how many improvements have been made.  So I am convinced that it can be done safely, and I’m hoping we can continue to pursue it.”

Cline is joined by the Commonwealth’s only other freshman Republican, Denver Riggleman, in supporting offshore drilling. And the state’s other two Republicans in Washington are on board too.

Southwest Virginia Congressman Morgan Griffith says he doesn’t have a problem with it.  “Just like I don’t have a problem with offshore wind or offshore wave action. I mean, for Virginia, you have to make sure you’re not disrupting the military lanes, you have to make sure you’ve got your safety equipment in – state of the art stuff.  But in theory, I don’t have a problem with it.”

But now that fracking – where you drill deep underground and pump fluid in to blast apart rocks – has taken off out west and in the Mid-Atlantic states, drilling offshore may not be the energy boon once promised to Virginia and other coastal states.  Griffith fears Virginia may have already missed out. "You know, 15 years ago if we would have gotten this project started, when I think I first voted for it in the Virginia House of Delegates, we’d have made a bunch of money," Griffith says.  "So the real economic benefit to the Commonwealth may have passed because we waited too long.”  

While eastern Virginia Republican Congressman Rob Wittman is in favor seismic testing to see what lies underneath the surface, he’s not shouting ‘drill baby drill’ just yet.  “I am in favor of doing the exploration. I think we ought to know what resources are out there. There hasn’t been a survey done out there in decades,” Wittman argues.

Environmentalists complain seismic testing hurts sensitive sea creatures and they’re terrified about the potential for an oil or gas spill in the future.  Wittman says he’s sensitive to those risks, though not terribly worried about them.  “There will always be a risk there, so it’s going to be a decision about what are our energy needs? And at what point do we use the energy that’s there? I think all of those are pertinent questions," Wittman says. "You’ll never get it to zero risk, so there will be some risk there. The question is how much is that risk? Is it worth what other potential impacts there could be?”

But for the commonwealth’s Democrats, offshore oil and gas drilling is a nonstarter. “Continuing the investment in fossil fuels, especially at the risk of all our coastal communities, is really a bad idea,” argues northern Virginia Congressman Don Beyer.

Democratic governor Ralph Northam has repeatedly expressed opposition, as well.

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