Environmental groups of every stripe and New Jersey officials from both parties voiced strong opposition Wednesday to President Obama's plan to expand oil and gas drilling on the outer continental shelf.
Although no drilling would be allowed from New Jersey north, areas from Delaware south could be developed. New Jersey's beaches - and its hefty tourism economy - could be ruined by pollution from a spill or other accident in the Mid-Atlantic region, they said.
The new national strategy also would expand drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and protect one area of Alaska.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said a development plan for a large area off the Virginia coast would be speeded up and seismic exploration would be done elsewhere in the Mid-Atlantic.
Doug O'Malley, field director for Environment New Jersey, was not pleased. "It's not a good day when all of New Jersey has to stand up to a bad idea from the president," he said. "This proposal will gamble with one of the largest industries in the state, and that's tourism."
O'Malley and others said it was ironic that New Jersey would be vulnerable to pollution from oil drilling when it is proceeding with ambitious plans to develop offshore wind farms.
"New Jersey's coastline is one of our economic engines," Gov. Christie said, "and I would have to be really convinced of both the economic viability and environmental safety of oil and gas exploration off our coast. At this point, I'm not convinced of either."
U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D., N.J.), a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said New Jersey beaches and beach towns generate about $50 billion a year and employ nearly 500,000 people.
In 1988, when a bag of medical waste washed up on a New Jersey beach, vacationers canceled plans and the state lost a third of its tourism revenue, he said.
"Giving Big Oil more access to our nation's waters is really a 'Kill, Baby, Kill' policy: it threatens to kill jobs, kill marine life, and kill coastal economies that generate billions of dollars," he said.
Critics noted that in the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989, oil traveled more than 400 miles. New Jersey is roughly 100 miles from the Virginia waters where the first drilling would likely occur, and any spills would be carried north by the Gulf Stream.
If the northern tip of Delaware were opened for gas or oil exploration, rigs could be visible 10 to 12 miles off the coast of Cape May, said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club.
He said increased exploration could lead to more oil and gas shipping traffic along the coast and into Delaware Bay.
However, Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.) gave cautious approval to the plan, saying he supported the president's efforts to increase the domestic oil and natural gas supply as long as it could be done in "an environmentally feasible manner . . . which I believe is possible."
The Chemistry Council of New Jersey, an industry group, supports the plan. Executive director Hal Bozarth said its members pay some of the highest electricity rates in the nation.
"We have to do everything we can to get the cost of electricity down," he said. "Unless we want to rely on oil from the Middle East, we need to do something here at home."
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D., N.J.) has sponsored a bill that would ban drilling from Virginia to Maine.
"We need an energy policy that is farsighted, that is safe for the environment and good for the economy," he said Wednesday.
To manage exploration on the outer continental shelf, the federal Minerals Management Service oversees a leasing program.
The 2007-12 national leasing program was written by the George W. Bush administration but later ruled legally flawed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
But some of the lease sales - including just one in the Mid-Atlantic, 50 miles off the coast of Virginia - were allowed to go through.
Salazar said the agency would try to speed the process of environmental analyses and other studies, including investigating conflicts with military uses of the area.
The agency could decide whether to go ahead with the lease off the coast of Virginia in late 2011 or early 2012.
He said additional lease sales in the Mid-Atlantic would depend on "scoping" studies to determine the extent of the resources.
The Mid-Atlantic site covers nearly three million acres off the Virginia coast and the southern Delmarva Peninsula.
To the north is the Assateague Island National Seashore. Directly ashore is a necklace of remote and pristine barrier islands.
Elsewhere along the Mid-Atlantic coast are 27 national wildlife refuges and several national esuarine research reserves, the report noted. Tourism is important to the local economies, and the offshore waters contain productive fisheries.
In 2008, the Minerals Management Service estimated the site could contain as much as 130 million barrels of oil and 1.14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas; it estimated the economic value at $340 million.
Gregory Mountain, a Rutgers University geology professor, was startled at how little there was - the oil amounts to perhaps a week's worth of U.S. consumption.
"We need much bigger numbers here to make all this worthwhile," he said.
Roughly three decades ago, the last exploratory drilling off the New Jersey coast found similar formations with oil and natural gas, Mountain said, but at the time hydrocarbon companies concluded that there was too little and that it would be too hard to retrieve.
Cindy Zipf, executive director of the nonprofit Clean Ocean Action, said the amount of oil off the Atlantic Coast was too little to risk "the incredible value of a clean ocean," even if estimates double.
Plus, she said, "going out and trying to find that needle in a haystack is going to require seismic blasting, which will endanger marine mammals and fish. It's a dirty deal for all of us on the Atlantic Coast."
But Andy Radford, senior policy adviser for offshore issues at the American Petroleum Institute, said the Mid-Atlantic was a potentially important site.
"Very little is known about that area," he said. "We haven't drilled out in the Atlantic in close to 30 years." He said new seismic technologies would allow explorers to better evaluate what is under the sea floor.
In addition, discoveries of oil and natural gas in similar geologic formations off the coasts of Africa and eastern Canada suggest there may be more oil and gas off the Mid-Atlantic coast than once thought.
"There's potential," Radford said, adding, "Just for the sake of diversity, we've got to explore all areas."
He said another benefit of the Virginia site was that it is close to East Coast population centers, where demand is high.
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