NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) -- A new analysis of military training conducted off Virginia finds that nearly all of the Outer Continental Shelf in that area is incompatible with offshore drilling now being pushed by members of Congress and the Trump administration.
The D.C.-based advocacy group Oceana said Wednesday that its review of U.S. Defense Department planning assessments found that 94 percent of the waters off Virginia are vital to an array of military operations that would conflict with offshore oil and gas development.
"There's little room to drill off Virginia's coast," Oceana's campaign director, Diane Hoskins, said in a phone call Wednesday. "94 percent (of the area) has longstanding DOD operations critical to national security and military readiness. There's too much at stake."
It's a view shared by a former commander of Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world.
"Absolutely," retired Capt. Joe Bouchard said in a phone call Wednesday of Oceana's assessment. "In fact, it may slightly underestimate the problem."
Bouchard served 27 years in the U.S. Navy, including tours at the Pentagon and with the While House National Security Council staff, before retiring in 2003. He lives in Virginia Beach.
Lease-sale areas in the Atlantic Ocean were removed last year from the proposed federal five-year energy plan devised by the Obama administration after years of scientific review and more than a million public comments.
Then in April President Donald Trump issued an executive order to reverse that plan and put the Atlantic back in play for offshore leasing, along with new areas in the Pacific and Arctic oceans and the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
Trump said at the time that he was "unleashing American energy and clearing the way for thousands and thousands of high-paying energy jobs."
"The federal government has kept 94 percent of these offshore areas closed for exploration and production," Trump said. "We're opening it up."
The move was applauded by the oil and natural gas industries, which claimed it will lead to greater energy independence.
But most of the Outer Continental Shelf waters off Virginia are used by every branch of the Armed Forces, including Naval Station Norfolk and Langley Air Force Base, for aviation, surface, subsurface and special operations training.
"Some of the exercises can take place over very large areas," said Bouchard. "And you don't want oil rigs cluttering up the op area. The training activities are very dangerous to oil rigs, which are actually very fragile."
Military activity would also put sea-bottom well heads at risk, and sea-bottom pipelines. An east-west swath off Virginia is a submarine submerged transit lane, he said, and broad areas are used for live ordnance exercises.
"Missiles, bombs - bombs up to 2,000 pounds," said Bouchard. "That is a very large bomb. And the shock wave from it travels a great distance, especially in water.
"It just doesn't pass the common sense test that you'd want installations like that in an area where DOD is training with live ordnance," Bouchard said. "It's a disaster waiting to happen."
The entire Outer Continental Shelf area off Virginia, both surface and subsurface, is also instrumented by the military for air combat training, he said.
"If you've seen the movie 'Top Gun' where, after they fly, they have these 3D computer recreations of how the air combat went - that's real. That's what they do here," Bouchard said.
The Navy also conducts anti-ballistic missile defense training out of Wallops Island on Virginia's Eastern Shore, one of only two places in the world where the U.S. can do so.
That training is "critical," Bouchard said, as North Korea and Iran continue or ramp up their missile programs.
The DOD and Navy have consistently opposed drilling off Virginia for years. Allowing lease sales would mean conflict between the military and the drilling industry, which can't easily exist in the same space, Bouchard said.
"DOD places a lot of emphasis on training to begin with," Bouchard said. "That's a primary reason why we have the best Armed Forces on the planet.
"So anything that would interfere with the DOD's ability to train its forces for deployment is a grave threat to our national security."
Developing a federal five-year energy plan typically takes years of study and public hearings. But Hoskins said the House Committee on Natural Resources is expected to vote next Wednesday on a measure that would bypass much of the offshore lease-sale process.
If passed, the Accessing Strategic Resources Offshore Act would, among other things, authorize the secretary of the interior to conduct and expedite offshore lease sales.