U.S. Postpones Virginia Offshore Drilling Plan After Gulf of Mexico Spill

The U.S. Interior Department said it will postpone public meetings on a plan to allow oil and natural-gas drilling off of Virginia’s coast as it reviews “safety issues” related to the Gulf of Mexico rig explosion.

Meetings planned for later this month in Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina to let the public comment on the offshore drilling proposal have been canceled, Julie Rodriguez, a department spokeswoman, said. The meetings have not been rescheduled.

President Barack Obama on March 31 proposed drilling for oil and natural gas off the U.S. East Coast while scrapping development in Bristol Bay, Alaska, part of an effort he said will boost energy independence and protect the environment. Department officials are focused on the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which damaged a subsea well that is leaking an estimated 5,000 barrels a day, and won’t be available for the meetings, Rodriquez said.     “It’s a postponement, not a cancellation,” Elgie Holstein, spill response coordinator for New York City-based Environmental Defense Fund, said in an interview. “It’s also appropriate because there’s so much about this spill we don’t know yet,” said Holstein, who is also a senior adviser on energy and environmental policy to Obama’s presidential campaign.

Obama’s proposal includes drilling 50 miles off the Virginia coast in what would be the first offshore Atlantic oil and gas lease sale in more than two decades. When the plan was announced, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the administration aims to have a sale in Virginia by 2012.

‘Thorough Review’

Obama said May 1 no new offshore drilling leases will be issued until a “thorough review” of the BP Deepwater Horizon incident determines whether more safety systems are needed.

“Today’s announcement that three public hearings will be canceled should not change the timing of Virginia’s planned offshore lease sale in 2012,” Stacey Johnson, spokeswoman for Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, said in a statement. “This pause is a prudent step to ensure the Deepwater Horizon rig accident is appropriately studied and investigated, and the lessons learned are implemented moving forward.”

BP plans to lower a containment dome to the seabed today to collect crude spewing from the damaged well. The spill has formed an oil slick that threatens to kill wildlife and slow shipping at the largest U.S. commodity port.

“Today’s decision is a major win for the east coast,” Jacqueline Savit, senior campaign director for the Washington- based environment group Ocean, said in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jim Efstathiou Jr. in New York at jefstathiou@bloomberg.net.

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