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Defense Department objections help shelve Virginia offshore drilling plans

In a move that stunned Virginia's two Democratic U.S. Senators, the Obama administration has shelved plans to allow drilling off Virginia's coast, in part because of Defense Department objections.

In a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Director Abby Hopper announced that areas off the Virginia and Georgia coasts would not be included in the administration's proposed five-year plan for offshore oil and gas leasing.

After extensive discussions and public hearings, Jewell said her department had concluded that "now is not the time to start leasing off the Atlantic coast," adding that going ahead with leasing plans, "doesn't make sense in light of opposition" from public and private sources.

The move marks a sharp shift from just a year ago, when the administration proposed opening sites up to 50 miles off Virginia's coast to exploration.

A key factor in the decision were fresh objections from the Department of Defense, which saw the potential lease sites as obstacles to its mission in the Atlantic.

Jewell sought to diminish the DoD's concerns, saying its comments on the proposed leases "were one among many factors" in removing the Virginia coast from consideration.  

Hopper added that the "DoD assessment" of the proposed lease sites, "looked at how their missions would be impacted."  She said the department's assessment determined that, because of a larger Navy presence based out of Norfolk, Virginia, "[the] whole lease area is affected."

Added Jewell: "Operations the military has in the Atlantic are very, very significant. The conflicts (the DoD) identified, in addition to those of the NASA operations at Wallops Island, were significant."

Both of Virginia's Democratic senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, expressed surprise and disappointment with the decision.

In a statement, Kaine said he was "particularly struck by the material objections of the Department of Defense to the incompatibility of drilling with naval operations off Virginia’s coast, cited by the BOEM as one of the three principal reasons for their decision."

He added that he has been involved in the offshore leasing issue since his time as Virginia's governor, and that the Defense Department "has never shared their objections with me before."  He said he looks forward to "additional discussions with DoD to understand its position.”

In his statement, Warner said he "take[s] seriously the concerns the Department of Defense and NASA have raised about the potential impacts of energy exploration and development along the Atlantic coast."  He added that he expects "a full briefing from the Navy and NASA Wallops about the nature of their concerns.”

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a proponent of offshore leasing, said in a statement that he wants to continue "to work with the Department of Defense to address the concerns they have raised, and to ensure that any offshore energy exploration is coupled with a revenue sharing agreement that benefits our Commonwealth."

Not all of Virginia's top elected officials were disappointed in the decision. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who has already declared his intention to seek the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2017, hailed the BOEM decision, calling it "a win for Virginians."

But Jewell, the interior secretary, admitted that the decision was not the last word on oil and gas exploration off Virginia's coast.  "It's out of the current five year program," she said, adding that "a future administration could review" today's decision "and put it back in."

Such a move "couldn't be done quickly," Jewell said. She also pointed out that "Congress could force a lease sale" if it wished.