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VA Governor Mulls Bill Supporting Gas Drilling Off State's Coast

After clearing both houses of the legislature, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine is reviewing legislation that conceivably would permit natural gas development 30 miles off of the state's coastline.

The bill (SB 262) creating a comprehensive energy bill that supports offshore gas drilling was passed by Virginia's House of Delegates earlier this month, after clearing the Senate by 31-6 in mid-February.

"In general, he [Kaine] is pleased the legislation looked at energy in a more comprehensive way," said the governor's spokesman, Kevin Hall. However, with "an issue this complicated," he said it was likely that Kaine would make some amendments to the bill, which was sponsored by state Sen. Frank Wagner (R-VA). Hall said it was too early to speculate about the type of amendments that may be offered by the governor. Kaine has 30 days to review the legislation.

The bill "by and large [has] stayed intact," Wagner told NGI, adding that he believed the governor would sign it. Any amendments offered by Kaine would have to be approved by the Senate and House, he said. "I don't suspect there will be a whole lot of them."

In 2005 Wagner proposed a more limited measure advocating offshore gas drilling. It also cleared both houses of the legislature, but was vetoed by former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner in the end (see NGI, April 11, 2005).

Kaine "supports exploratory drilling offshore [Virginia] to see what's out there," Hall noted. "The governor has vowed support for that [exploratory drilling] as far as it goes." But whether this, in fact, takes place will hinge on action at the federal level, Wagner said. "It clearly still is in the federal government's hands." The bill calls for Virginia's congressional delegation to seek an exemption from the federal moratorium on drilling off the East Coast.

One member of the Virginia congressional delegation, Republican Sen. John Warner, already has introduced legislation that seeks to encourage more gas leasing by giving the governors of energy-friendly states the opportunity to exit from the federal moratorium on drilling in certain parts of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) beginning in 2007.

If Virginia's governor signs the bill but Congress doesn't lift the moratorium, "I guess all we can do is tell Virginians to put more heat on the federal government," Wagner said. He noted that 74% of his constituents in Virginia Beach favor offshore drilling.

Elsewhere in Washington, DC, the Interior Department's draft five-year (2007-2012) plan for leasing on the OCS, which was released in February, proposes to explore the potential for energy development off the coast of Virginia.

Once the state conducts exploratory drilling and knows "what's out there," then "we can have the larger debate on the environmental concerns" and other issues related to drilling off Virginia's coast, Hall told NGI.

Wagner's bill, which was introduced in the General Assembly in January, proposed greater access to the federal OCS for natural gas development, an exemption for Virginia from the moratoria on drilling off its coast, construction of more gas pipelines and the siting of one or more liquefied natural gas terminals in the state, as well as the creation of a research center at Old Dominion University to explore frozen methane-gas crystals. The bill also included a number of non-gas provisions, such as siting a new nuclear and wind facility in the state and promoting renewable energy development (see NGI, Jan. 16).

Environmentalists have sharply attacked the measure for its focus on traditional, fossil-fuel energy sources. "Conservation is a very big part of the solution, but it's not going to get to the core problem," Wagner said in response to the criticism.

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