From Artic Ocean to Chesapeake Bay, Obama’s decision to halt drilling stirs debate

By Dena Potter, AP
Friday, May 28, 2010

Decision to halt offshore drilling stirs debate

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Sitting at the end of a pinewood bar at the back of his seafood shop, Dimitri Hionis stares out over the calm waters of Lynnhaven Inlet as he struggles with whether the Gulf oil spill should halt oil and gas exploration off Virginia’s coast.

Supplying more of the oil we need would be great, he says, but not at the expense of places like this — “paradise,” where he sits each morning watching the birds and fishermen go in search of the bay’s treasures.

“I really want to see an independence here, but I will never say yes till I make sure that this will never happen here,” said Hionis, sporting a red polo shirt with golden crabs on it.

As Americans grow more outraged by the spill, and frustrated at the fumbling efforts to stop it, President Barack Obama announced new steps to restrict drilling, including the suspension of planned exploratory drilling off the coasts of Alaska and Virginia and ordering a halt to 33 exploratory deep-water rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

From the Arctic Ocean to the Chesapeake Bay, the decision announced Thursday is stirring passions on both sides of an already contentious issue.

Some politicians, especially in Virginia where lease sales scheduled for 2012 were canceled, are accusing Obama of a “knee-jerk” reaction that could bring to a halt to their long-sought economic boon from drilling. But many, like Hionis, who make their living off these waters, say Obama is right to tread carefully in the wake of the devastation in the Gulf.

Hionis, 59, owns four businesses along this stretch at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. From the bar outside the seafood shop, smells of bait fish from his marina next door mingle with the aroma of the crab-topped burgers at his restaurant on the other side.

Restraint, he and others say, is the answer.

Vaughan King, 19, has been crabbing since he was a freshman in high school. He has watched the price for a bushel of blue crab rise slightly since the Gulf oil spill. It’s good for his business, he says, but bad for the fishery in the Gulf.

He, too, would hate to see a disaster in these waters, he said, glancing into his truckbed loaded with seven bushels of blue crab from the morning’s catch.

Oil lease sales were scheduled for 2012 for an area of nearly 3 million acres 50 miles of Virginia’s coast. In Alaska, plans to begin exploratory drilling this summer on Arctic leases as far as 140 miles offshore will not be considered until next year. In Louisiana, a lease sale scheduled for August off the coast of New Orleans was canceled.

Like Obama, who cleared the way in March for Virginia to become the first Atlantic Coast state to drill, many of the state’s Democratic leaders who had backed drilling have turned their support toward cancellation.

Republicans, however, said Obama’s decision came too quickly.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has said he wants to make Virginia the East Coast’s energy capitol, said he didn’t feel an outright cancellation was best since the sale was not due to take place for two years and drilling would likely have come years after that.

U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, said Americans needed “steady leadership, not knee-jerk reactions” in the face of the Gulf disaster.

“Pointing fingers, placing blame and reversing previously made policy decisions is not the kind of leadership people want and deserve in times of crisis,” Cantor said.

Frederick Patterson, 66, disagrees.

Catching some shade on his 34 foot boat, he said Obama did the right thing, but doubted whether it would stop the push to drill in the waters where he loves to fish. He worries about the oil from the millions of gallons that have leaked in the Gulf making its way here. He can’t imagine if the rigs were just offshore.

“If the same thing happened 50 miles away, this place would be flooded with oil,” said Patterson, a semiretired electrical contractor from Landham, Md., who docks his boat at the marina. “This whole situation is just a disaster.”

Back on land, Hionis says he would welcome the drilling — but only if it comes with a guarantee that his piece of paradise won’t suffer.

“I will never trade this for nothing,” he says, turning his tanned face toward the water. “There’s no money to trade this.”

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