The federal government has taken the first step in 25 years toward offshore drilling in the mid-Atlantic, launching a study of a potential exploration area just north of the N.C. line.
The 2.9-million-acre study area off the Virginia coast is within 55 miles of the N.C. coast.
The federal Minerals Management Service said Wednesday it would prepare an environmental-impact study, beginning a 45-day public comment period.
A decision whether to sell leases to the area in 2011 will come later.
No drilling plans are in play for the Carolinas. The states' coasts could not be included in a schedule of potential lease areas until its next revision beginning in 2010.
Soaring energy prices this year eroded long-standing political opposition to offshore drilling.
Critics say it would invite oil spills and tourism-killing industrialization to the N.C. coast.
Virginia, however, had requested that the Minerals Management Service include its offshore waters among potential lease locations.
Despite Virginia's interest, two barriers until recently prevented drilling off the East Coast.
In July, President Bush lifted an executive order making the area off-limits to drilling, and in September, a congressional moratorium expired.
The study area is 50 miles off the Virginia coast. Details on how the public can comment on the proposed lease will be published today in the Federal Register.
No drilling leases have been sold in the mid-Atlantic since 1983.