VA_offshore_drilling_map.jpgInterior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a slowdown of the Bush administration's rush to open new areas of the Outer Continental Shelf to new oil and gas drilling -- but said he would most likely leave in place the plan to drill off Virginia's coast not far from the North Carolina border.

At a press conference held yesterday at the Interior Department, Salazar described the previous administration's plan -- proposed on Bush's last business day in office and published in the Federal Register the day after the Obama administration took over -- as a "headlong rush of the worst kind" and a "processed rigged to force hurried decisions based on bad information."

Citing the need for a more comprehensive energy plan than Bush's "drill only" approach, Salazar said he would add 180 days to the public comment period on new drilling, order the Minerals Management Service and U.S. Geological Survey to assemble a report within 45 days on offshore resources, and issue a final rulemaking on offshore renewable energy resources such as wind in the next few months. He also announced plans to hold four regional meetings around the country to hear public comments; those meetings are scheduled for the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts as well as Alaska.

Salazar's announcement puts the breaks on new drilling off the coast of Georgia and North Carolina, where lawmakers are studying the matter. However, during the question and answer period, he said he was inclined to leave untouched the proposal to drill off the coast of Virginia, the Virginian-Pilot reports. That proposal was part of an earlier plan for offshore leasing that had already been approved.

Deborah Murray, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, Va., said her organization wished Salazar would have canceled plans for the Virginia drilling but was generally encouraged by his comments, according to the paper:
Murray said she was especially pleased that Salazar wanted new scientific research on the coast, instead of relying on "old science, some 20 or 30 years old," when private energy companies last looked beneath the ocean floor off Virginia. They found very little promise back then, but conducted scant tests.
Last month, SELC on behalf of itself and three other environmental organizations called on Interior to abandon plans to open the Virginia coast to drilling, saying the potential for harm to marine species, migratory birds, fishing and tourism far outweigh the benefit of extracting the relatively small amounts of fossil fuels thought to be present.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, Congressman Jim Moran and the U.S. Navy have also expressed objections to the drilling proposal. So has NASA, which is concerned that offshore drilling operations would interfere with operations at its Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore.

(Map of area targeted for drilling off the Va. coast from the U.S. Department of the Interior)