Exploration and Drilling Begins off the Coast of Virginia

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"The state is ground zero for the drilling debate because of possible reserves off the coast and what energy experts see as a friendlier government than elsewhere."

In its last weeks in office, the Bush administration started the process of exploration and drilling off the coast of Virginia. The move means that President-elect Barack Obama and brand new interior secretary nominee Ken Salazar—a Democratic senator from Colorado—will have to jump feet-first into the decades-old debate over offshore oil drilling.

The U.S. Interior Department has completed the first step, closing a public comment period on the proposal to lease 2.9 million acres of ocean to natural gas and oil companies.

"The East Coast really has not been looked at for 30 years," said Randall Luthi, who heads up the drilling plan as director of Interior's Minerals Management Service. "Our best guess is that area could contain about 130 million barrels of oil and 1.14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas."

Such an oil find would be small compared with the estimated 40 billion barrels in the Gulf Coast. The natural gas is more substantial; but both are symbolic of a rare window of opportunity for the energy industry. A two-fold ban on Outer Continental Shelf drilling ended in just the past two months.

As the price of gas surged past $4 a gallon this summer, U.S. drilling became a hot political issue. President Bush responded by repealing a presidential offshore drilling ban put in place by his father. Then in October, a gridlocked Congress let a separate drilling moratorium expire after 26 years on the books.

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