WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration moved yesterday to open an area off the Virginia coast to oil and gas drilling, a step that environmentalists warned could lead to the weakening of the long-standing ban on new energy exploration off much of the U.S. coast.
That ban was inspired by a devastating oil spill off Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969. But with high gasoline prices and concern about U.S. dependence on foreign oil, pro-drilling forces are more hopeful of persuading Congress -- even with its Democratic majority -- to relax the drilling ban.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne unveiled yesterday a five-year plan that calls for offering drilling leases in an area off Virginia that has been off limits since the 1980s, a move that is subject to presidential and congressional approval. He also proposed expanding drilling off Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico.
Gasoline prices continued to rise yesterday, hitting a nationwide average price of $2.95 for a gallon of self-serve regular, according to AAA.
California prices rose 4.3 cents in the past week to set a record high average of $3.359 a gallon. Environmental groups vowed to lobby Congress to block the proposed drilling off Virginia and in an area off Alaska that President Bush previously moved to open to exploration.
"President Bush and Vice President Cheney are definitely addicted to oil, and it's up to Congress to enter them into rehab," said Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey, a New York Democrat who vowed to use his position on the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee to try to thwart the plan.
The proposal to permit drilling more than 50 miles off the Virginia coast in 2011 is noteworthy because most of the nation's coast -- except for a large part of the Gulf Coast and areas of Alaska -- has long been under drilling moratoriums.
The Interior Department's drilling plan also calls for drilling in Alaska's Bristol Bay, on the west side of the Alaskan peninsula north of the Aleutian Islands that was put off limits to new drilling in 1989 after the Exxon Valdez spill.
Bush lifted the drilling ban there this year, but an effort is under way in Congress to restore the ban. Environmentalists describe Bristol Bay as a salmon-rich area critical to the fishing industry and an important habitat for marine life, including endangered species.
The administration also proposed expanding drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, including areas opened by the Republican-controlled Congress in one of its last acts last year.
Administration officials were hopeful of opening the area off the Virginia coast, in part because the state's Democratic governor signed legislation last year supporting natural gas exploration, provided it occurs at least 50 miles offshore.
Gov. Tim Kaine said in a statement: "Virginia law stipulates that we are open only to natural gas exploration -- that is, we do not agree at this time to natural gas production, or oil exploration or production."
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation urged Congress yesterday not to approve the proposal for drilling off the coast of Virginia in federal waters.
"Even at 100 miles out, an oil spill could cause significant damage along the shoreline, from Assateague Island to Chincoteague," said Roy Hoagland, vice president of environmental protection and restoration at the foundation. "We have a lot of soft shorelines along the coast and in the bay. You get oil in marshy areas and it's almost impossible to remove."
Industry groups welcomed the announcement and vowed to continue to lobby to open up more coastal waters to drilling.
Kempthorne said the administration's plan would provide "greater economic and energy security for America and can be accomplished in a safe and environmentally sound manner."
Overall, the new drilling off the coasts of Virginia and Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico could produce 10 billion barrels of oil and 45 trillion cubic feet of natural gas over 40 years, Kempthorne said.
Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times. Sun reporter Tom Pelton contributed to this article.