By Alexander Bolton - 03/31/10 10:47 PM EDT
President Barack Obama’s decision to open the nation’s coastline to offshore drilling has set up a fracas with Senate Democrats.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), one of the leading Senate opponents of offshore drilling, has blasted Obama’s plan.
But Virginia Democratic Sens. Jim Webb and Mark Warner are on board, urging Obama to move quickly to open mid-Atlantic shores for oil and gas exploration.
“Drilling off the Virginia coast would endanger many of New Jersey’s beaches and vibrant coastal economies,” Lautenberg said in a statement.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) also took a strong stance against Obama’s proposal Wednesday.
“I have let the administration know that offshore drilling is a non-starter for me,” Menendez told The Newark Star-Ledger. “A spill in Virginia ends up in Cape May, New Jersey.”
Obama has proposed opening a vast stretch of the Atlantic coast, from the northern tip of Delaware to mid-Florida, to offshore drilling.
Webb and Warner pushed the administration to act in a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in January.
"We would urge you to promptly commence these steps in order to ensure that the Virginia lease sale is conducted in a manner that is timely and consistent with the interests of the environment and our national security," the lawmakers wrote.
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, also raised concerns over how the new drilling proposal might affect military exercises in his state.
“I’ve talked many times to Secretary Salazar and told him if they drilled too close to Florida’s beaches they’d be risking the state’s economy and the environment,” Nelson said in a statement. “I believe this plan shows they heeded that concern.
“Now I need to hear from Defense Secretary Robert Gates,” Nelson added. “And I want him to look me in the eye and assure me that this plan will not compromise national security by interfering with the unfettered space we have for training and testing our most sophisticated military weapons systems.”
Republican critics, such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, have also put pressure on Obama to develop the nation’s energy resources.
Environmentalists argue the potential energy gains are not worth the expected impact on beaches and marine life.
Lautenberg argues that an oil spill could create severe ecological damage within a 500-mile radius — putting the New Jersey shoreline in danger. He said the beaches and beach towns of New Jersey generate about $50 billion in economic activity every year and employ 500,000 people.
The government estimates that 130 million barrels of oil and 1.14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas may lie off Virginia’s shores.
The Bush administration crafted a plan in 2008 to begin leasing an oil and gas patch off Virginia’s coast beginning in 2011. The Virginia senators contacted Salazar after progress on the lease slowed.
Warner applauded the plan Obama announced Tuesday.
"This is good news and a positive step forward as we work to expand our nation's domestic energy production,” Warner said in a statement.
“Moving forward on the mid-Atlantic off-shore proposal will provide an opportunity to determine the scope of our region's off-shore energy resources, the economic viability of accessing those resources, and the potential impacts on our environmental and national security priorities.”
In September, two Democratic senators voted for an amendment sponsored by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) that would have prohibited delaying the Bush administration’s Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program. They were Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska) and Ben Nelson (Neb.).
Fifty-four Democrats and two independents voted to support the Obama administration’s suspension of the plan.
A lobbyist for an environmental group said that liberals such as Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would raise objections to Obama’s proposal.
Democratic senators from Washington, Oregon and Rhode Island have also voiced objections to offshore drilling in the past.
This story was posted at 12:35 p.m. and updated at 1:52 p.m. and 6:47 p.m.