Oil exploration could hamper military operations, former Naval Station Norfolk commander says

Oil rigs in Navy training area would put lives at-risk

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Map Navy operational area
Map showing the Virginia Capes Operational Area and the area that could be opened up to offshore oil exploration (Southside Daily photoCourtesy of Joseph Bouchard)

VIRGINIA BEACH — It’s difficult to believe that our nation’s highest political leaders would do anything that could hamper or negatively impact our military’s ability to prepare and defend our nation.

But that appears to be the case as President Donald Trump and his administration have proposed opening the Atlantic Coast of Virginia to gas and oil drilling.

While the environmental dangers of drilling for fossil fuels in the depths ocean are obvious and all too real (see BP Deepwater Horizon 2010), the potential for incidents between the numerous military units stationed in and around Hampton Roads and the oil rigs that could one day ring our coast aren’t quite as clear.

Nonetheless, they’re very, very real.

Atlantic Ocean as a training area

Stretching from the coast of Delaware in the north and the Outer Banks of North Carolina to our south, the Navy’s Virginia Capes Operational Area is a large swath of the Atlantic Ocean that is used by the Navy and the other branches of the military for training.

Since 2005 the Department of Defense has been clear in its opposition to drilling off the Virginia coast, referring to it as an “unacceptable encroachment” that would put not only military training operations at risk, but also lives.

To help readers understand the impact that oil rigs sitting off our coast might have to the Navy that sails those waters, Southside Daily interviewed Joseph Bouchard, PhD, who retired from the Navy in 2003 as a captain. During his 27 years of active duty service, Bouchard served as a Navy Surface Warfare Officer and commanded the destroyer USS Oldendorf.

Bouchard also served as commander of Naval Station Norfolk from 2000-2003, guiding the base’s efforts to adopt to sea level rise, which has increased by some 12 inches since the establishment of the base 102 years ago.

He brings a unique perspective to the issue of offshore drilling.

Since retiring 15 years ago he has worked as a corporate executive in the telecommunications industry, as well as in homeland security. He now works as an independent consultant.

Bouchard believes that if oil rigs are allowed to be built off the coast of Virginia in or near the VACAPES operational area, it will put both military personnel and oil rig workers at risk.

Some oil rigs rise 40 stories above the ocean

“The Navy, Air Force, Marines, Army, Special Operations Forces, and Coast Guard use it for a wide range of combat training, including training with live ordnance,” he said. “This training is crucial for U.S. forces to be combat-ready for deployment abroad in support of national security.”

Offshore oil platforms in the VACAPES operational area, Bouchard said, would force the Navy to cease using portions of that area for training.

“The biggest threat would be collisions with the drilling rigs and the boats and helicopters that service the rigs,” he said, adding that such incidents are common in the Gulf of Mexico where oil rigs intrude into DoD training areas and oil industry boats and helicopters often venture in without providing the mandatory notification.

However, the biggest threat to the oil rig platforms and their crews would come from the live-fire maneuvers.

“If live fire ordnance were to accidentally hit an oil platform the results could well be disastrous,” he said.

The seabed wellheads and tiebacks (pipelines carrying oil) could also experience damage from shock waves created by shells exploding in the water.

Former Naval Station Norfolk commander
Joseph Bouchard, former commander of Naval Station Norfolk, says oil exploration off of the Virginia Coast could have dire consequences (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Joseph Bouchard)

Shock waves, Bouchard said, carry much farther in the water than they do in the air, and the wellheads and pipelines aren’t designed to withstand them.

Nearly 80 ships and 134 aircraft call Naval Station Norfolk home

The Navy needs a large area in which to operate because of the extended range of sensors, weapons, and high-tech combat systems.

Placing oil rigs in or near the training area would lead to parts of VACAPES becoming inoperative, making it necessary for ships, submarines, aircraft, and other combat units to wait for a training area to open up, Bouchard said.

Likewise, oil rigs in or near the training area could require military assets to travel farther to find a large enough area in which to carry out their exercises.

Limitations on the VACAPES OPAREA could, Bouchard said, force the Navy and other combat units to find a different area in which to carry out training — such as the one off of Jacksonville, Florida.

A transit of that length might convince the Navy that relocating assets from Norfolk to Jacksonville would be a sensible move.

Bouchard also said oil rigs would also negatively impact activities at Wallops Island, a NASA Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore that relies on the isolated openness of the VACAPES OPAREA when it tests and launches rockets.

Oil exploration map
Map that includes water depths of the operational area and the prospective oil exploration area (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Joseph Bouchard)

Worst case scenario

Should a disaster like the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon event occur off the coast of Virginia, the impact on the Navy would be devastating.

“Ships and submarines have ‘sea suctions,’ which are openings in the hull that bring in sea water for cooling machinery and to feed the distilling plants that produce fresh water,” Bouchard said. “Ingesting oil into sea suctions would seriously damage equipment on ships that transit through an oil spill.”

He said that during the first Gulf War, Iraqi forces intentionally created large oil spills in the Persian Gulf, which forced the Navy and our allies to avoid those areas.

If such a spill were large enough to cover the navigational channels into and out of the Chesapeake Bay, ship movements in and out of Naval Station Norfolk would in all likelihood cease. At least for a time.

“Congress should pass legislation banning drilling for oil and gas in any DoD offshore training range, NASA or DoD range safety area, and navigation channels serving military or commercial ports,” Bouchard said.

Bouchard will serve as a guest speaker Saturday during the Hands Across the Sand event on the Virginia Beach Oceanfront.

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