State Lawmakers Torn Over Sonar Testing for Oil off of VA Coast

Aug 11, 2014

The Obama Administration recently announced it's going to allow sonar testing off Virginia's coast to see how much oil and gas is out there. Capitol Hill reporter Matt Laslo has the story on how Virginia lawmakers are divided over a change they sense coming to the moratorium on drilling off the commonwealth's coast... 

Courtesy of Virginia Prosperity Project

Republicans don't see much in President Obama's energy policy they like. But the announcement that companies can now apply to test how much oil and gas is sitting off Virginia's coast brought cheers from the GOP, including one of his staunchest critics in the commonwealth, Congressman Morgan Griffith whose district encompasses the state’s southwestern coal fields. 

“I think the President got one right. A little late and not as much as I would do, but I’m going to give him credit for getting one right.”

The move by the administration doesn't touch the moratorium on drilling that's in place. But Virginia Republican Rob Wittman says it's a vital first step. 

“Oh absolutely. Yeah I think exploration is a critical part of that. You know the old exploration data is decades old. You do have to have new information."

Before oil rigs can ever be erected off shore, companies need to know what lies underneath the surface. To get that data companies will use sonar blasts that are a hundred times louder than jet engines, which Wittman says are necessary.

"I think they’re taking the right safety measures to assure that there’s no impact on marine mammals, so I do think it’s a positive step forward.”

Experts disagree with Wittman. Even Obama Administration scientists who approved the tests admit the sonar lasts will harm more than a hundred thousand creatures, like whales and sea turtles that are endangered. Northern Virginia Democratic Congressman Jim Moran says the whole endeavor is being driven by dollar signs, not science.  

“I do. You know obviously there is economic pressure that has built to develop along the eastern seaboard, but you know I know the most about Virginia and I just think that it’s fraught with peril.”

Supporters say it’s a trade off though. Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine has advocated for offshore drilling for years. He says the exploration process needs to go forward even though endangered sea creatures will likely die or be maimed in the process.

“They could, I mean you know again doing seismic activity will help you determine the size of a reserve and then that—again it’s a cost benefit calculation the size of the reserve can be a factor in deciding whether a moratorium makes sense or not.”  

Kaine says without the controversial tests companies wanting to invest in the state will be flying blind.

“I mean I think the, the moratorium off the coast was sort of a cost benefit analysis, but based upon analysis that was done you know thirty or forty years ago. And seismic activity gives you a sense of the size of reserves and then you can do a different cost benefit analysis.”

The move to allow exploration for oil and gas reserves from Delaware to Florida is seen by many supporters as paving the way for leases to drill being awarded in two thousand eighteen. Congressman Moran says opening up the state’s coast to drilling will hurt the commonwealth’s traditional industries.

“I think it’s a mistake in Virginia. I think it raises too much risk to the tourist industry particularly along Virginia Beach. I think it has potential risk for the shipping industry, which I said we have a substantial shipping channel and most importantly we have a major U.S. Naval presence.”

Senator Kaine says Virginia can help the U-S take steps to become more energy independent at a time when many of the world’s oil markets are increasingly unstable.

“You know it’s, I mean everything is going to have an impact, but I think that you know the energy strategy we have should be clean, cleaner, more native and affordable and we should always be trying to balance that and I think to the extent we can find these energy resources and I think we can do it in an environmentally sound way.  It’ll enable, it’ll help us on the affordability, it’ll help us on the becoming less reliable on foreign energy. I mean the events in the world are showing every day that that’s a good thing for us.”

But Congressman Griffith says he doubts the administration wants to open up the commonwealth for drilling. He thinks they just want to quite critics ahead of November’s elections.

“I hope that it’s a change in stance. I fear however it’s just a way of playing to the American public right before an election, but you know I use the old Ronald Regan adage and trust and wait to see action after the election that moves toward lifting the moratorium.”

Oil and gas companies have wanted to drill off Virginia’s coast for decades. Now they’re one step closer to their goal, though it’s still unclear if they’ll ever reach it.