Virginia coastline
Insert drilling rig here?
Jimmy Emerson

You might think that anyone with a television set would oppose offshore oil drilling, at least anywhere near her home. Watching the devastation wreaked on the Gulf Coast by the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill would not make drilling in your state’s waters look very appealing. (In case you’ve forgotten, the toll of that disaster included 11 deaths, 4.9 million barrels of oil released into the ocean, dead and damaged wetlands and marine life, and economic losses that are literally incalculable but reach into the tens of billions by any estimate.)

But look at Virginia, a swing state that has recently elected two Democratic senators and a Democratic governor, and been carried twice by President Obama. Most Virginians believe in anthropogenic climate change, want to address it, and prefer candidates who share those values.

And yet, paradoxically, they support offshore oil drilling right off their own coastline. An October poll conducted by Harris Interactive and commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute found 67 percent of Virginians support offshore oil drilling. The headlines it generated, however, are a bit misleading. The poll questions were phrased to guide the respondent to the oil industry’s position. (For example: Do you agree with this statement: “Increased production of domestic oil and natural gas resources could help strengthen America’s energy security”?) And the poll does not specify offshore drilling along Virginia’s coast, just in the U.S. generally.

Nonetheless, there is at least plurality support for offshore drilling in Virginia waters, and the state’s elected officials are on the same page. Both of Virginia’s senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, favor drilling off the Virginia coast. They have even cosponsored a bill that would open Virginia’s Outer Continental Shelf to oil exploration, previously cosponsored by Kaine’s predecessor, Jim Webb. Outgoing Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell was such an ardent proponent of drilling that he traveled in May 2010 to an oil industry-sponsored conference in Houston to tout the benefits of offshore drilling while Deepwater Horizon was still gushing.

Shortly before the spill, President Obama had announced plans to open up new areas of American coastline to offshore drilling. After the spill, Virginia’s waters were dropped from the plan, triggering complaints from McDonnell and Webb. And Virginia’s governor-elect, Terry McAuliffe, went from opposing offshore drilling in his unsuccessful 2009 gubernatorial Democratic primary campaign to supporting it this year.

McAuliffe’s shift on the issue says a lot about how energy and climate politics have changed over the past five years. Back in 2008, when even the Republican nominee for president believed in climate change and wanted to do something about it, the debate was somewhat different. Only 42 percent of coastal Virginia residents supported offshore oil drilling in 2009, according to an unbiased poll from Monmouth University. Since the recession, and thanks to the long-term rise in gasoline prices because of increased demand from Asia, there has been a shift in a more pro-drilling direction. A couple other things have happened since 2009 to weaken resistance to drilling: Republicans decided that none of them believe in climate change any more, and the Koch brothers starting dumping more money into groups promoting the energy industry agenda, such as Americans for Prosperity.

“Climate change fell by the wayside in the 2012 election,” says Geoff Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “A lot of people are pro-environment but only up to a certain point. If the question is, ‘Would you be OK with creating only a little environmental damage to create X number of jobs or create X amount of gas to lower your energy costs?’ a lot of people are going to lean toward the economy or energy benefits.”

According to environmental activists in Virginia, their state’s contradictory inclinations — concerned about climate change and yet eager to contribute more to the problem by sucking oil from the Earth and burning it — are just a microcosm of America’s schizophrenia on the subject. “A majority of Americans believe climate change is a problem, and they’re experiencing impacts of it already, and it’s man-made. Yet a majority of Americans want to build the Keystone XL pipeline,” says Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “I don’t think it’s a contradiction unique to Virginia.”

Tidwell argues that oil in particular has a grip on the American psyche. “There’s something about oil,” he says. “There’s still some sort of western frontier romance with oil gushers and a cowboy throwing his hat up in the air, drenched in falling oil; the love of the automobile.” Certainly Americans have an unhealthy attachment to their gas-guzzling cars, SUVs, and trucks. And if you’re going to be so dependent on gas, it’s understandable that you might want to boost supply.

Understandable but foolish. Since petroleum is sold on a global market, drilling in Virginia does not mean gas prices will decrease in the U.S., much less Virginia in particular. There would have to be enough oil in the Virginia Outer Continental Shelf to appreciably alter the relationship between global supply and global demand. That is highly unlikely. As The Washington Post explains, “The last study of the Atlantic Ocean by the federal government, conducted two decades ago, estimates that at least 130 million barrels of oil and at least 1.14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas could be off Virginia’s coast. That’s equal to the amount of oil used in six days and the amount of gas used in less than a month in the United States.”

Moreover, Virginia’s economy, not unlike Louisiana’s, depends on healthy coastal waters. As Climate Progress reports:

A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers analysis of Virginia’s tourism industry reported that the sector supports more than 200,000 jobs, yielding an economic impact of more than $20 billion in 2011, and that Virginia’s beaches alone attracted nearly 10 percent of the state’s tourists. Virginia’s coast and ocean also support thriving fisheries; in 2011 fishermen landed 247,000 tons of seafood in Virginia, worth more than $191 million, ranking it the third largest seafood producer in the country by weight. …

Drilling offshore Virginia would also be incompatible with another vital activity carried out along the state’s coast — keeping our nation safe. Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval complex in the world, is one of the state’s primary economic engines, supporting more than 71,000 military and civilian employees. Overall the Navy was responsible for nearly $15 billion in economic impact in Virginia in fiscal year 2009.

In 2010 the US Department of Defense determined that 74 percent of the areas eyed for oil and gas leasing offshore Virginia would directly interfere with the extensive military activities that are carried out in the region, including ordnance training and aircraft carrier operations.

Offshore drilling in Virginia is not part of the Obama administration’s five-year energy plan for 2012-2017, so it won’t start in the next couple of years unless the administration changes its policy. Republicans in the state legislature are calling on McAuliffe to use his supposed influence with Obama to lobby for just that.

As Bill McKibben writes in Rolling Stone, Obama has been happy to open up a lot of federal lands to dirty energy exploration. Just because the economic benefits are largely illusory and the environmental consequences catastrophic does not mean voters oppose drilling. And on this issue, Obama has been a follower, never a leader.