Emboldened by last month's Senate vote to start drilling the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, the Associated Press reports today that energy interests now have their sites on a new target: the nation's coasts.

90% of America's coastline is now protected by a 24-year-old ban on new oil and gas development. But the energy corporations and their allies in the Bush administration want to change that. In fact, they've already started chipping away at the measure by doing an end-run around federal law and lobbying for state-level exemptions, especially in the South:

  • The Bush administration indicated last month that it intends to give the industry access, starting in 2007, to a protected area off the Florida coast that is twice the size of the Arctic refuge and rich in natural gas.

  • Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., last week proposed legislation that would give governors the power to open some or all of their states' offshore lands restricted by the federal moratorium.

  • Virginia's General Assembly passed a bill last month urging the state's representatives in Congress to push for an exemption from the federal offshore-drilling ban.

Expanded drilling could spell disaster for the South. Nine of the 13 Southern states bank heavily on coastal tourism dollars, and the tourist industry is rightly worried about the prospect of massive drilling platforms looming on the beach horizon. Tourism is the second-largest industry in North Carolina, with the coasts alone generating billions of dollars in revenue.

And all it takes is one accident to destroy the coast's fragile environment -- and industries which depend on it, like seafood and tourism -- for generations. Remember the Exxon Valdez?

Who's standing up to the energy interests? It's not necessarily who you'd expect. Senators Burr and Dole from North Carolina, both Republicans, have vowed to oppose any move to expand offshore drilling.

By contrast, Democratic Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia vetoed the legislature's move to lift the drilling ban -- but on procedural, not policy grounds. After noting how much revenue the state could capture from new natural gas pipelines, he promised to "keep an open mind."