WASHINGTON — Six months after ousting a Republican incumbent in one of the most closely watched races in the country, U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, D-2nd, is setting her sights on President Donald Trump’s administration — in particular its plans to massively expand oil and gas drilling in federal waters.
On Jan. 8 — a year to the day after launching her bid for Congress — Luria co-introduced legislation that would prohibit the administration from issuing leases for the exploration, development or production of oil or gas on the mid-Atlantic coast.
In a short interview near her Washington, D.C., office, the rookie Democrat told the Virginia Mercury she plans to “continue to push this and be loud about it.”
The fight over offshore drilling is expected to ramp up when the Trump administration releases an update on its rewrite of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s five-year leasing plan, which would open up nearly all of the country’s Outer Continental Shelf for oil and gas development. A final plan is expected to be released by the end of the year.
The Trump administration unveiled a draft proposal last year — a year after it overturned an Obama-era ban on offshore drilling in most of the Arctic and key parts of the Atlantic. Trump’s executive order was thrown out by a federal judge last month.
The administration is scheduled to release an updated offshore drilling proposal this year, which will be followed by a 90-day public comment period. When asked about opposition to the plan from Luria and other members of Congress, Connie Gillette, spokesperson for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said, “We welcome the public’s input.”
Virginia’s Democratic delegation is united in opposition against offshore drilling while Republicans are bullish.
A ‘direct threat’
Luria’s bill — which has the support of four other Democrats in Virginia’s congressional delegation — would prohibit drilling in the mid-Atlantic region. She characterizes it as a no-brainer — so much so that she made it the first piece of legislation she introduced in her congressional career. “They’re really is no advantage,” she told the Mercury.
Offshore drilling, she said in a statement, is a “direct threat” to her district, which is experiencing one of the fastest rates of sea-level rise in the country. In addition, it threatens national security and the local economy, she said — two major concerns in a district with the largest naval base in the country and a robust tourism industry.
These issues are also close to Luria’s heart — and to her fledgling political career.
A former naval commander and owner of a pair of arts and craft stores in Norfolk and Virginia Beach, she says drilling will interfere with military operations off the coast and could damage the district’s beachfront community and aquaculture. “I have yet to meet anyone throughout my campaign or since I’ve been in office, really, who thinks we should have drilling off the Virginia coast,” she said.
One such proponent, however, is Mike Watson, a former delegate to the Virginia Assembly and Virginia chair of Explore Offshore, a coalition promoting offshore energy development. At this point, Watson is calling for exploration, which he said would be conducted via seismic mapping — essentially a 3D ultrasound of the ocean floor. “Just having the reserves in place gives us strength from a diplomatic standpoint and an economic standpoint,” he said. “There’s some security there … even if we don’t have a plan to go after it.”
Oil rigs, he noted, would not be visible from the shoreline and would therefore not affect the local economy. And he brushed aside environmental concerns about an oil spill like the Deepwater Horizon, the rig that exploded in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and spawning an oil leak of four million barrels that continued unabated for 87 days, fouling beaches and marshes along the Gulf Coast.
Technology, Watson said, has advanced since then, dramatically reducing the likelihood of such disasters. However, the Trump administration has also moved to roll back safety regulations imposed after the Deepwater Horizon spill, the largest “in the history of marine oil drilling operations,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Bipartisan, bicoastal opposition
Watson says he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the administration will muscle forward with its offshore drilling plan — but it will nonetheless have to fend off the likes of Luria and a bipartisan, bicoastal coalition of opponents in Congress.
In addition to co-introducing the Defend Our Coast Act, Luria joined other Virginia Democrats in February signing on to a letter expressing opposition to permits issued by the administration allowing seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic Ocean, which opponents say can be harmful to marine life, particularly large mammals. And this month, she wrote a letter to a House Appropriations subcommittee asking it to set aside $30 million to improve climate and severe weather modeling, improving planning for infrastructure in military and coastal communities.
“She’s getting into it right away, and we anticipate her continuing to lead this fight,” said Alex Taurel, program director at the League of Conservation Voters. “Her district is one of the most climate-impacted in the country. We see her work as directly responding to the needs of constituents in her district.”
Benjamin Melusky, who teaches political science at Old Dominion University, called her position a good match politically for the district. Quentin Kidd, political science professor at Christopher Newport University, agreed, saying there’s “little downside” to that position in the 2nd District.
That said, it won’t inoculate her from a tough bid for reelection, he added — even though no challenger has emerged yet.
A “purple district in a purple state,” the swing district in the state’s southeastern corner is one of the most competitive in the country, Kidd said, and noted that the powers of incumbency aren’t as strong there as elsewhere. “This is a target district. I don’t think it matters who the member of Congress is.”