Decision nears on Georgia offshore drilling

Washington is expected to rule, perhaps Tuesday, on opening up large swaths of the southern Atlantic Ocean to oil and gas exploration.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is reviewing potential offshore drilling sites off Georgia, Virginia and the Carolinas that could produce more than 3 billion barrels of oil and 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. No drilling has ever taken place in the South Atlantic.

If approved — recent reports say the feds may greatly restrict exploration — thousands of rigs may one day dot the outercontinental shelf, albeit well beyond the view of coastal observers.

“This is a big opportunity and if the U.S. is to continue the success we’ve seen over the past decade of American energy leadership and our ability to compete on the global market, the time to get it right on energy policy is now,” Erik Milito, an American Petroleum Institute official, said during a conference call Monday with reporters.

A draft plan released by Washington last year would allow the sale of drilling leases so energy companies could prospect for oil and gas beginning in 2017. Drilling may not actually begin for a decade.

Dozens of Atlantic coastal communities, including Savannah, Brunswick and St. Marys, have signed resolutions opposing exploration due to environmental, tourism and fishing concerns. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as plunging oil and gas prices, have fueled anti-drilling sentiment.

“Opening our coasts to offshore drilling poses a serious threat to our environment, coastal economies, and quality of life—it is simply not worth the risk, ” Bill Sapp, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement.

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