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By: Bill Bartel
August 1, 2013
Fresh from his first visit to an oil drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell vowed this week to redouble efforts to establish a drilling operation off Virginia's coast.
The Virginia Beach Republican said after a two-day trip to Louisiana that he's "more excited" and has a "stronger resolve" to push for opening the coastal waters to petroleum production as a way to create well-paying jobs and diversify Hampton Roads' economy.
Acknowledging that under the most optimistic scenario, no rig would be installed in Virginia waters for at least 10 years, Rigell said Gulf residents, oil rig workers and business executives have convinced him it's time to make a push.
"You reap what you sow," said Rigell, who was taken by helicopter Monday to visit the Shell-operated Noble Jim Day platform south of New Orleans, more than 100 miles off the Louisiana coast. "With our good effort now, whether I'm in office or not... collectively as a region we'll prosper and we'll benefit."
But not everyone is so enthusiastic. Major objections remain because of fears that an oil spill or rig explosion would harm the region's fragile ecosystem; the Navy's expressed opposition to drilling in areas needed for its operations; and the Obama administration's resistance to sharing federal drilling revenue with coastal states.
Federal legislation has been introduced - backed by Rigell and Virginia's two U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine - that would allow the sale of oil and gas leases off the state's coast as long as the commonwealth gets a share of government royalties. The lawmakers argue that Virginia and other coastal states share some risk and should benefit from the profits. Several Gulf states already collect royalties.
The House approved a measure in June that lifts a federal moratorium on oil and gas drilling off Virginia's shores and requires that coastal states share 37.5 percent of government revenue from drilling off their shores.
Sales of Virginia leases were expected to begin in 2011 but were put on hold by President Barack Obama until at least 2017 after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf.
In the Senate, a recent leadership change may unblock long-standing resistance to sharing revenue. New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a staunch opponent of revenue sharing, retired this year. His replacement, Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, has indicated support for sharing royalties.
However, a Department of Interior official said during a congressional hearing last week that the administration opposed sharing more royalties, noting that the payments are a major source of federal cash. Their loss would add to the budget deficit, said Pamela Haze, a deputy assistant secretary.
Rigell contended that if the states don't receive a share of revenue, no offshore drilling will be allowed and no one will get any money.
"Let's look at this way: 100 percent of nothing is nothing," he said.
Glen Besa, director of the Sierra Club's Virginia chapter, called the "real environmental threats" from offshore drilling unacceptable, particularly with the regional economy's dependence on tourism and the fishing industry.
"I would suggest to you that Rigell, Kaine and Warner are really misreading the tea leaves as far as public sentiment goes," Besa said. "We're always just one accident away from public opposition."
Rigell said new technologies - including equipment developed after the Deepwater explosion that killed 11 people and caused a massive oil spill - will make the rigs safer and greatly reduce any environmental risks.
"I really believe that it's required of me to respect those who disagree with me on this," Rigell said. "One thing I won't do is concede that they care more about the environment than me."
Based on what he heard in talking with young blue-collar workers, company officials and community leaders in southern Louisiana, Rigell said, he's convinced the industry can provide well-paying jobs, including oil rig work for those with no college education.
When asked how he expects to overcome objections, the two-term congressman acknowledged he has to build a strong case.
"I'm in the persuasion business," said Rigell, who made a fortune as a car salesman before entering politics. "That's what I do for a living.... It is not to try to fool someone - in fact, that's offensive. Let's go where the facts lead us."