The Obama administration proposes to allow oil and gas drilling off the Atlantic coast for the first time in over 30 years, drawing fire from environmentalists and many East Coast lawmakers about the potential for spills that could harm the Chesapeake Bay and resorts like Ocean City.
Federal officials hope to issue an offshore lease from Virginia south to Georgia as part of a plan offering more leases in the Gulf of Mexico and off Alaska, the administration said Tuesday. The government will gather further information to refine the plan and issue the Atlantic lease in six years.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said it is was part of a "balanced proposal" to exploit the nation's offshore oil and gas reserves while protecting "areas that are simply too special to develop."
In deference to opposition from West Coast states, the plan continues a long-standing prohibition on drilling in the Pacific Ocean. President Barack Obama also put five areas in Alaskan waters off limits because of the richness of their wildlife and value to native communities.
Environmentalists and other critics argue that the East Coast also deserves protection, and said a spill could be catastrophic for important commercial and recreational fishing and for coastal communities that rely on tourism.
Democratic senators from Maryland, New Jersey and Massachusetts — but, notably, not Virginia — held a Capitol Hill news conference and vowed to pressure the administration to withdraw the recommendations for offshore drilling in the Mid-Atlantic.
"It's not worth the risks," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. "My concern is that you could have a spill from a site that's not off the Maryland coast but that could impact the Maryland coast."
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, favors allowing drilling off his state, as did his Republican predecessor.
Oil industry representatives welcomed the potential opening of the Atlantic to exploration, but expressed disappointment that more areas there and in the Gulf and Alaska had not been offered for possible leasing. Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute called the administration's proposal for a single Atlantic lease six years from now "the bare minimum" for an area not explored in decades.
"Nova Scotia and Newfoundland have been developing [offshore oil and gas] for years," noted Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, "but the U.S. will continue to turn a blind eye to what potential might be off our own northern Atlantic shore."
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan did not respond to requests for comment. Hogan's predecessor, Gov. Martin O'Malley, had opposed any leasing off Maryland or elsewhere along the Mid-Atlantic, arguing that besides the environmental risks, it could interfere with offshore wind development.
This is the second time the Obama administration has moved to allow drilling in the Atlantic. An earlier bid to issue a lease off Virginia's coast was shelved in 2010 after a massive spill in the Gulf fouled marshes and beaches in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Although there would be no drilling directly off Maryland, critics said a major spill anywhere along the East Coast posed unacceptable risks to the state and to the bay. The northern portion of the proposed Mid-Atlantic lease area would be as close to Ocean City as it is to Virginia Beach, within reach of wind-driven waves.
"As we saw after the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, when oil starts to leak it knows no boundaries," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland's other Democratic senator.
The bay's blue crabs also could be at risk, warned Kim Coble, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The iconic crustaceans are spawned at the mouth of the bay, she said, and then drift miles out into the ocean before returning to the Chesapeake to grow and reproduce.
While Maryland might be spared drilling rigs off its coast, the Obama administration is weighing permitting seismic testing all along the Atlantic coast from Delaware south to gather geological clues about what oil — or more likely, natural gas — may lie beneath the ocean bottom.
Environmentalists have objected to that as well, arguing that the underwater sonic booms could harm whales, marine mammals and fish. Federal officials say they would bar testing at certain times of year to protect migrating whales and sea turtles. They would also require spotters aboard testing vessels to halt seismic pulses whenever a creature was spotted in the water nearby.
Exploring the Atlantic's oil and gas potential is part of the Obama administration's "all-of-the-above" energy policy, Jewell said, which seeks to develop fossil fuels as well as renewables like wind and solar. Ten other leases are proposed to drill in the Gulf of Mexico and three off Alaska.
Jewell said federal officials intend to be cautious about exploring the Atlantic, gathering more input and information before issuing a lease in 2021. But she said officials believe it's time to take a fresh look at just how much oil and gas may be there.
Fifty-one exploratory wells were drilled along the Atlantic in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While a handful found gas or other petroleum products, all were abandoned as not commercially viable. Drilling on the East Coast was subsequently put off limits by Congress and various administrations until 2008.
While earlier Atlantic drilling didn't pan out, industry officials say the situation may be different now with new technology for finding and extracting hydrocarbons from deep beneath the surface.
Administration officials said they would move ahead in coming months with an environmental impact study and seek additional input from stakeholders and members of the public to refine the proposed lease sales.
"We are early on in this process," said Abigail Ross Hopper, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and former head of the Maryland Energy Administration. Hopper said the areas listed for possible lease sales "are not set in stone. Rather they are options for us to consider."
Jewell said the administration was moving to tighten regulations on offshore drilling to reduce chances of another spill like the 2010 blowout at BP's Deepwater Horizon rig off the Louisiana coast.
For the Atlantic lease, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has proposed a 50-mile buffer zone from shore. It is designed to minimize effects on fish and marine mammals, but also to avoid conflicts with fishing, coastal shipping, military activities and offshore wind projects, which would site turbines nearer shore.
Environmentalists say such precautions are inadequate, and drilling could wreak lasting harm to the East Coast.
"It could lead to a coastline scattered with oil and gas rigs," said Jacqueline Savitz, a vice president with Oceana, a Washington-based environmental group. "Commercial fishing, tourism and recreation economies would suffer from routine oil leaks as well as the looming risk of a Deepwater Horizon-like oil disaster stretching along the East Coast."
Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze in Washington contributed to this article.