Gulf oil seeps into Maryland politics

With the Gulf of Mexico oil spill threatening to stain Maryland beaches with tar balls, talk of offshore drilling is seeping into state politics.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who had offered only mild opposition initially to President Barack Obama's plans earlier this year to open the waters off Virginia to exploration, held a public briefing last week on the state's oil cleanup capacity, and then pressed the administration to take a harder line against drilling here.

Republicans, meanwhile, blasted the governor for raiding an oil cleanup fund to balance the state budget.

Analysts dismissed the back-and-forth as election-year posturing.

"There is no imminent danger to Maryland because there is no oil drilling going on," said Donald F. Norris, who chairs the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "The likelihood is that there won't be, at least any time that anyone can see. This is electoral politics."

The governor, who has been a staunch opponent of offshore drilling, surprised many in March when he was present for the event at which Obama unveiled a plan to sell oil exploration leases off Virginia's coastline. At the time, O'Malley's spokesman said the governor was confident the administration would be "guided by science" as it determined whether to allow the sale.

Since then, O'Malley has grown steadily more outspoken in his criticism. In a letter this week to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the governor requested an outright ban on Mid-Atlantic drilling; during an event touting a new oyster rehabilitation program, O'Malley said he was "opposed to any drilling off the Chesapeake Bay."

"I can't imagine anyone actually wanting to go forward with that given the disaster we are cooking up as a nation in the Gulf of Mexico," O'Malley said.

Asked about Mid-Atlantic exploration, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, who is challenging O'Malley to win back his old job, pointed to the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. He said drilling there would eliminate any need to explore off Virginia.

"We have plenty of better venues," Ehrlich said, then referred further questions to a spokesman.

While Ehrlich appears to have made few if any public statements about nearby drilling, his former lieutenant, Michael S. Steele, is an outspoken proponent of increasing exploration. Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, led the "Drill, Baby, Drill," chant during his party's 2008 convention.

Ehrlich spokesman Andy Barth said the former governor would not want a repeat of the Gulf spill here.

"We don't believe that pursuing offshore drilling is a realistic or sensible idea right now," Barth said. About "Drill, Baby, Drill," Barth said: "Governor Ehrlich didn't say that and doesn't really have anything to say about it."

The point might be moot since Obama last week called off the Virginia lease sale amid criticism that his administration has failed to adequately regulate deepwater drilling.

Still, the same day Obama made that announcement, O'Malley fired off the letter to Salazar, writing that the "unprecedented" oil spill "raises serious questions about the ultimate cost and benefit" of exploration in the Mid-Atlantic. Ocean City beaches draw roughly eight million tourists a year, O'Malley wrote, a source of revenue that could be jeopardized by an accidental spill.

The governor also echoed a concern floated first by Rep. Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat who says much of the proposed lease site would disrupt Department of Defense exercises.

Republicans criticized O'Malley for raiding a fund that was established to pay for cleaning up oil spills in order to balance the state's budget.

Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for the O'Malley campaign, said any constraints on the fund would not prevent the state from making money available to clean up a spill.

"This winter, the snowstorms were a good example of when there is a disaster that needs rectifying, the budget is secondary," Adamec said.

When the state quickly surpassed the snow removal budget, he said. "the plows did not stop. The same would be true for an oil spill."

Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy Wheeler contributed to this article

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