The Gulf Oil Spill: A Virginia Perspective

Story by Chris Graham
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There’s only a “slim chance” that oil from the BP oil spill off the coast of Louisiana will end up washing ashore on beaches in Virginia, according to a James Madison University professor who is a Gulf Stream expert.

“The Gulf Stream, as it travels eastward, reaches its closest proximity to the coast in South Florida. As it flows northward from there, it starts to flow eastward. So by the time you get to, let’s say, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, it’s about 40 miles from the coast. When you get to Virginia Beach, it’s about 70 miles from the coast. So there’s only a slim chance that it would reach the beaches of Virginia, unless a storm were to come in and blow it toward the coast,” said Stan Ulanski, professor of meteorology in the department of geography and environmental sciences at JMU and author of The Gulf Stream: Tiny Plankton, Giant Bluefin, and the Amazing Story of the Powerful River in the Atlantic.

Chances that offshore drilling off the coast of Virginia could ever impact our beaches got even slimmer this week with the announcement that the Obama administration is canceling a planned 2012 sale of oil and drilling leases off the Virginia coast.

The move reversed a March 31 annoucement from President Barack Obama that Virginia would be one of the first states on the East Coast to have offshore drilling. The reversal was trashed by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a champion of offshore drilling who had dreams of using drilling revenues to plug funding gaps in the state’s transportation budget.

“I understand the decision the President has made today. While I respect his decision, and the need for delay and investigation, I do not believe outright cancellation was the only alternative given the fact that this sale was not due to occur until two years from now, and actual drilling would likely take place years after that,” McDonnell said in a statement Thursday.

The Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center offered sort of backhanded praise to the president on the lease cancellation. “It’s truly unfortunate that it took a tragedy of this magnitude to bring home how terribly wrong these operations can go and how devastating the damage can be. The impacts we see unfolding now in the Gulf are exactly what we and other Virginians have voiced concerns about for years,” senior attorney Deborah Murray said.

The SELC would like to see the administration extend its action to the rest of the East Coast and the eastern Gulf Coast.

“New offshore drilling should be prohibited, not for just six months, but until the Gulf is cleaned up, the Minerals Management Service is cleaned up, and there is 100 percent assurance this environmental and economic disaster will never occur again,” said Derb Carter, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Carolinas office.

Public opinion seems to agree, at least according to a new Virginia Commonwealth University survey out this week. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed by the VCU Center for Public Policy think the environmental risks to offshore drilling outweigh the benefits, with 35 percent saying they think the benefits to drilling outweigh the risks.

The risks include damage from spills, which is not going to be something that goes away once the oil is cleaned up, according to Ulanski.

“When you look at oil, one of the first things that people see is the obvious part, the slick. But a lot of the oil dissolves in the water, and though it’s out of sight, it’s toxic to a whole host of marine organisms, particularly planktonic organisms at the base of the food chain. So if you devastate of these guys, it has a ripple effect up the food chain,” Ulanski said.

“That is a concern not only in the Gulf of Mexico, but what might happen as the oil rounds Florida and into the Gulf Stream,” Ulanski said.

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