The Interior Department moved closer Wednesday to opening waters off Virginia to oil and gas drilling, although the offshore development plans could be scrapped by the next administration under President-elect Obama.

Interior's Minerals Management Service gave notice that it is conducting a formal examination of the environmental impact of oil and natural gas drilling 50 miles out from Virginia's coastline. The waters off Virginia were included in the government's five-year Outer Continental Shelf leasing plan, but until recently any drilling off the Atlantic coast was banned.

Congress in September lifted the long-standing moratoria on oil and gas leases in federal waters off both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

The Minerals Management Service said the action Wednesday was to "gather information to use for planning and analysis and does not indicate a preliminary decision to hold a lease sale."

Virginia officials have said they're interested in allowing natural gas exploration off the coast, but have not endorsed actual development of any of the resource, and have expressed reservations against oil drilling.

But energy development in Atlantic waters, including off Virginia, is anything but certain.

Democrats in Congress have said they plan to revisit the issue of offshore oil and gas drilling early next year and are likely to reimpose bans in at least some of the offshore federal waters. President-elect Obama has said he would support limited expansion of offshore drilling if states go along and if it is part of a broader energy package focusing on development of renewable energy sources.

Minerals Management Service Director Randall Luthi said in a statement that the agency "will evaluate environmental resources and potential impacts (of drilling) in this part of the mid-Atlantic." He said state and local government agencies and other parties will "have an opportunity to aid MMS in determining the significant issues and alternatives."

The proposal being considered would allow a 50-mile coastal buffer where drilling would be off-limits. Drilling also would be barred in waters at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

Michael Gravitz of the advocacy group Environment America said the drilling proposal raises the possibility of an oil spill that could affect broad areas off the Atlantic beyond Virginia's shore from the Carolinas to New Jersey.

"Instead of keeping America hooked on oil, our president be helping the country cut our oil consumption," said Gravitz.

The American Petroleum Institute said it welcomed MMS' plans for "a thorough environmental assessment ahead of offering offshore Virginia oil and natural gas leases" and that the industry has shown it can "develop these resources in an environmentally safe manner."