A Washington Post editorial Tuesday called on U.S. lawmakers to loosen some of the restrictions on oil and natural gas exploration and drilling in offshore regions that have been off limits to producers for years.

“The nation needs to be as willing to explore off its own shores for the resources it needs as it is to import them from abroad,” the newspaper said. “If it is acceptable to drill in the Caspian Sea and in developing countries such as Nigeria — where environmental concerns are no less important — it’s hard to explain why the United States should rule out careful drilling off its own coasts.”

The editorial comes on the heels of the release of the Interior Department’s five-year program (2007-2012) that calls for leasing to occur in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, Alaska’s Bristol Bay area and offshore Virginia (see Daily GPI, May 1). Energy industry and consumer groups criticized the proposal, saying it was far short of what is needed to meet increasing natural gas demand.

Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS), which oversees oil and gas leasing activities in federal waters, proposed 21 lease sales for the five-year period — 12 of which are scheduled for the Gulf of Mexico, eight offshore Alaska (including Bristol Bay) and, at the request of the Commonwealth of Virginia, one in the Mid-Atlantic Planning Area, about 50 miles off the coast of southern Virginia.

According to Interior, a 2.9 million-acre wedge that sits 50 miles off of Virginia’s shoreline is estimated to hold 327 Bcf of natural gas and 56 million barrels of oil, the editorial said.

But there are two obstacles to drilling occurring anytime soon offshore Virginia. While Interior has proposed a lease sale for Virginia in late 2011, drilling off the West and East coasts, including Virginia, currently is prohibited by presidential and congressional bans. “The president can lift the prohibition if a state requests it. In the case of Virginia, the legislature, with the assent of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), voted to make the commonwealth available for offshore exploration,” the editorial noted.

But Virginia imposed some conditions. “In addition to expanding the buffer zone for drilling from 25 miles to 50 miles offshore, the state provided only for gas exploration. Gas production and oil exploration and production are forbidden,” the editorial said.

Getting Congress to remove its drilling moratorium, which is renewed annually in appropriations bills, will be more difficult, the editorial said. “The opposition already voiced on Capitol Hill to the plans for Virginia — notably from Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, both New Jersey Democrats — makes the prospect of lifting the prohibition doubtful,” it noted.

Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), a foe of oil and natural gas drilling, also said he would use his seats on the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee and House Natural Resources Committee to block as much of the Interior proposal as possible.

“Nevertheless, Virginia is right to keep its options open on exploration, and Interior is right to pursue it. Even if, as we favor, the nation moves more aggressively to temper its thirst for oil, demand will grow,” the editorial said.

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