WASHINGTON - Get Kathy Phillips talking about oil exploration off the Mid-Atlantic, and she conjures a scene right out of the Gulf of Mexico, with drilling platforms, pipelines and pumping stations overwhelming the shoreline.
"People here on the East Coast don't have a clue what it means to have offshore drilling," said Phillips, an environmental activist with the Assateague Coastal Trust. "It's dirty business. The water is dirty, and your beaches end up being dirty, and you're dealing with globules of oil and globs of tar.
"I'm not even talking about oil spills. I'm talking about day-to-day operations."
With energy costs continuing to climb, politicians in Washington are again casting their gaze to the waters of the Mid-Atlantic, and the oil and natural gas reserves that geologists believe lie beneath. New talk of offshore exploration has the region's environmentalists on edge.
"It's definitely the wrong way to go," said Brad Heavner, state director of Environment Maryland. "You can't drill with zero impact."
The decision by President Bush to lift an executive order against exploring the Outer Continental Shelf is putting new pressure on Congress to end its own offshore ban. Republicans and some Democrats are backing legislation that would give coastal states the authority to allow drilling off their shores, in return for a share of the royalties the industry pays the federal government.
For now, the prospect of oil rigs off Ocean City remains distant. Gov. Martin O'Malley and Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, all Democrats, oppose drilling off Maryland's Atlantic beaches. The state's eight House members, Republicans and Democrats alike, voted together in 2006 to uphold the congressional ban.
But in Virginia, where lease royalties have been seen as a way to fund state transportation needs, Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine favors exploring for natural gas. The state's two senators, Republican John W. Warner and Democrat Jim Webb, are backing legislation seeking the right to do so.
"Our national security requires that we work responsibly toward energy independence," Webb said. "In order to address our nation's energy crisis, all options need to be on the table."
Officials in Delaware, meanwhile, are open at least to talking about it.
"The door certainly is not closed to entertaining a discussion on the matter," said David Small, the state's deputy secretary of natural resources. "There's a lot to talk about, and what the potential implications are."
Rep. John Sarbanes said that offshore drilling demands a single national policy.
"I think you need to be pretty careful about opening it up to a state-by-state decision-making process because you don't know where that will ultimately lead," the Baltimore County Democrat said.
Drilling next door would be too close for Cardin.
"My understanding is that if there was an incident off the coast of Virginia it could very well impact Maryland," he said. "A spill could have a devastating impact on the wildlife on Assateague, as well as to the economic strength of Ocean City.
"The environmental risk is way too great, based upon the expected returns."
The federal government estimates deposits of 15.13 trillion cubic feet of natural gas under the Mid-Atlantic - enough to meet the nation's needs for seven to eight months, at current usage rates. Oil is estimated at 1.5 billion barrels, sufficient to fuel America for about 72 days.
"There's a good feeling that it's out there somewhere," said David Cooke, a geologist with the U.S. Minerals Management Service. "Actually narrowing it down and finding it is the question still needed to be answered."
The deposits would be a small fraction of the reserves found in the Gulf of Mexico and off the northern coast of Alaska, and would likely take 15 to 20 years to find and bring to market, said Cooke.
But if the reserves were confirmed, said Jeff Schrade, a spokesman for the Natural Gas Supply Association, "there could be interest eventually in exploring those areas for development."
Not, however, without opposition. Heavner, of Environment Maryland, a liberal activist group, predicted "an enormous battle."
"You know, we've seen the debate in Florida rage for decades, really, a very high-pitched debate," he said. "I would expect something similar in Maryland, and many other states."
President Bush called again on congressional Democrats to lift the ban on offshore drilling during his weekly radio address yesterday.
"Bringing [Outer Continental Shelf] resources online will take time, and that means that the need for congressional action is urgent," he said. "The sooner Congress lifts the ban, the sooner we can get these resources from the ocean floor to the gas pump. Democratic leaders need to show that they have finally heard the frustrations of the American people."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she has no plans to bring the issue to a vote. She and other House Democrats want energy companies to focus on the tens of millions of acres of public land that they've already leased for drilling.
"We need to focus on developing the extensive resources currently available before opening up additional land," said Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat. "And we need to look to investing more in alternatives, which are critical to our long-term, sustainable energy future."
But as costs increase, Democrats are facing pressure from the growing numbers of Americans who want new areas opened to exploration. In a typical finding, 73 percent in a nationwide CNN/Opinion Research poll last month favored more offshore drilling for oil and natural gas in currently protected U.S. waters.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said recently that he would consider exploration. Schrade, whose organization represents U.S.-based natural gas producers and marketers, said he was optimistic.
"We hope Congress will listen to the voice of the American people on this issue," he said. "As prices have escalated, people have begun to say, 'Wow, let's get what we can from where we can.' "
That attitude worries environmentalists.
"We're faced with a challenge in getting as much gas as we're continuing to use and projected to use," said Heavner. "But the answer is not to use all our oil as quickly as possible. The answer is to use less oil."
Democrats say they support domestic drilling as one element of a larger push that would also include conservation and investment in alternative fuels. They have been pushing a "use it or lose it" bill, which would require producers to develop existing drilling leases or return them to the federal government.
"I think it's highly premature to start musing about drilling off the coast of Ocean City when there's plenty of available locations to do drilling now," Sarbanes said. "Anyone who wants to beat that drum, they ought to first explain why they're not using the permits that they've already got."