Drilling off the coast of Virginia is shaping up to be a political hot potato in the state’s gubernatorial race, with the presumptive Republican candidate urging the Interior Department to proceed full speed ahead with a scheduled 2011 offshore lease sale while the Democratic candidates are anti-offshore drilling and pro-green energy.

In late February Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s former attorney general and Republican candidate for governor, sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asking him to reject the request of current Gov. Tim Kaine to delay the planned Lease Sale 220 off the coast of Virginia, saying that drilling was “an important part of the solution ” to the state’s economic problems. “The Gulf of Mexico states have long shown it can be done in an environmentally friendly manner. It is an opportunity that Virginia cannot afford [to] delay or squander.”

He challenged the three Democratic gubernatorial candidates — State Sen. Creigh Deeds, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and former State Delegate Brian Moran — to co-sign the letter to Salazar but they refused to bite. “I urge the Democratic candidates for governor to put aside their pandering to special interests and do what’s right for Virginia families…Offshore production of natural gas and oil is not the entire solution for our economic and energy challenges, but it is part of the solution and we need to stop with the delays,” McDonnell said.

Kaine urged Salazar to postpone the scheduled lease sale in February, shortly after Salazar announced that he was delaying completion of the new five-year (2010-2015) leasing plan that was issued in the final days of the Bush administration (see NGI, Feb. 16). “Our policies do not support exploration for oil or production of gas or oil, which would be allowed under Lease Sale 220,” Kaine wrote at the time. “I believe that no lease sale should be conducted in the Atlantic until the process that you have outlined for the five-year [leasing] program is complete.” Kaine made a similar request for a delay to the Bush administration in mid-December, which was rejected (see NGI, Jan. 5).

But Salazar indicated that he didn’t think his action would affect the lease sale proposed for Virginia under the existing five-year program (2007-2012).

“The governor’s letter notes that Virginia law only currently allows for offshore natural gas exploration…[But] a governor committed to offshore energy exploration and development could work with the General Assembly to immediately broaden Virginia’s law to allow that to occur,” said McDonnell.

“As governor of Virginia, I will support legislation that will open Virginia’s offshore waters, starting 50 miles off the coast, to environmentally safe exploration and drilling for oil and gas,” he said.

The Virginia lease sale, if it’s held, would be the first lease sale conducted off the East Coast in nearly three decades (see NGI, Nov. 17, 2008). The proposed sale area, which is at least 50 miles offshore and covers 2.9 million acres in water depths of 100 feet to 10,000 feet, is believed to contain 1.14 Tcf of natural gas and 130 million bbl of crude oil, according to Interior’s Minerals Management Service.

The start of the process for offshore Virginia became possible when former President Bush last July lifted the presidential ban that placed the East and West coasts and parts of the eastern Gulf of Mexico off limits to leasing and drilling activity, and the congressional moratorium on leasing in those areas expired on Oct. 1, 2008, leaving the Outer Continental Shelf free of restrictions for the first time in decades (see NGI, Oct. 6, 2008; July 21, 2008).

The Virginia gubernatorial election is scheduled to take place in November. Kaine is not eligible to run due to term limits established by the state Constitution. Since 1976, Virginia has elected a governor of the party opposing that of the sitting president of the United States.

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