The U.S. Interior Department said Thursday it is indefinitely suspending the remaining public hearings on the proposed sale of oil and gas leases of Virginia while it focuses on the Gulf oil spill.
Some environmentalists hailed the decision as the death knell for East Coast drilling because of the deadly and destructive spill in the Gulf, but the government said that is not the case.
"This announcement is just concerning the meetings," said Caryl Fagot, a spokeswoman for the Interior's Minerals Management Service, which oversees offshore energy leasing.
The announcement sparked a flood of statements from environmental groups pronouncing the Virginia lease sale off. Some later withdrew their statements and toned them down.
Gov. Bob McDonnell's energy adviser, Maureen Matsen, said she was hopeful the delay in hearings would not mean a push back in the expected 2012 gas and oil sale 50 miles off the Virginia coast.
"I think it's a prudent step," Matsen said of the delayed hearings.
McDonnell has promoted offshore drilling as a possible economic bonanza for Virginia, although he has acknowledged the Gulf spill should be thoroughly investigated to avoid a similar accident off the state's coast.
Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., said any drilling off Virginia's coast is seven to 10 years away so a delay in the hearings is not critical to the overall lease sale.
"Sen. Warner believes it is critically important that we take the time to responsibly incorporate what we might learn from the Gulf tragedy as we move forward," said his spokesman, Kevin Hall.
In a statement, the Department of the Interior said MMS staff has "focused their attention on the Deepwater Horizon incident and would be unable to conduct the meetings until a later date."
The hearings, scheduled for Norfolk, North Carolina and Maryland, were not rescheduled.
Asked if Thursday's announcement was a first step in canceling the lease sale, Fagot said, "At this point, we're just postponing the public meetings. I can't speculate on that."
Still, the postponed hearings created a stir among drilling opponents.
The Southern Environmental Law Center called the Interior decision "an appropriate response," but said it should take the next step and ban drilling off of Virginia's coast.
"Virginia and the nation has too much to lose and too little to gain from drilling," the SELC said in a statement.