NC officials, environmentalists concerned over offshore drilling plan
By Adam Wagner GateHouse Media Posted: Jan 12, 2018 at 3:56 PM
But industry officials say process should be allowed to play out
WILMINGTON -- North Carolina’s inclusion on a draft five-year offshore drilling plan has state officials and environmental organizations concerned, while oil industry representatives are calling for the public comment and review process to be carried out.
“We’re talking about an unprecedented situation when we talk about opening up the Atlantic Coast,” said Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). “Open up the Atlantic and the types of impacts you’d see to economies are really unknown. What we do know is we’ve got tourism, recreation fishing, commercial fishing, all of these pillars of the coastal economy that very likely will be undermined by the risk coming to the coast.”
The draft plan would begin lease sales in all 50 states, with consideration passing through the same lengthy public comment and scientific review process the Obama administration used in crafting the still-in-effect 2017-2022 plan.
During previous iterations of the plan, public comment meetings to discuss offshore drilling in Wilmington and the Outer Banks have been among the best attended in the country. Additionally, more than 30 local N.C. governments have passed resolutions opposing seismic testing, offshore drilling or both, while two have passed resolutions in favor of exploration off the North Carolina coast.
In announcing the draft plan, Ryan Zinke, the federal Secretary of the Interior, said, “Just like with mining, not all areas are appropriate for offshore drilling, and we will take that into consideration in the coming weeks. The important thing is we strike the right balance to protect our coasts and people while still powering America and achieving American Energy Dominance.”
The plan calls for 47 new lease sales across the country, including nine in the Atlantic Ocean, where there have been no leases since 1983. If passed as proposed, it would open more than 90 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf’s acreage for exploration. Diane Hoskins, a national campaign organizer for Oceana, said, “Secretary Zinke, in making the announcement, said this is probably the largest lease sale that’s ever been offered by any president. We don’t think that’s something to be proud of.”
Hearing in Raleigh
The oil industry believes that all options should be considered at the beginning of the process, said David McGowan, the executive director of the N.C. Petroleum Council. He pointed to rules stating that areas can be pulled from draft plans, but not added once a proposal has been submitted.
“I think it’s important that as many options as possible have been left on the table,” McGowan said. “The way this process works is they typically cast a wide net and then cull through that net as the process moves forward and remove areas from consideration.”
Environmental groups were also critical of the decision to move public comment sessions to state capital cities, away from the coastal areas where they were held during previous administrations. North Carolina’s only public comment session, for instance, will take place in Raleigh on Feb. 26.
“They have,” Weaver said, “arbitrarily designated state capitals as the place for the hearings, which could be where the oil lobbyists are, but not where the coastal residents who can be affected by these issues can get.”
‘A critical threat’
In 2013, N.C. State University economist Michael Walden estimated offshore drilling in North Carolina would result in 17,000 jobs and generate about $1.9 billion annually after a seven-year buildup period. Oil spills would also, Walden estimated, result in $83 million in annual damage -- primarily to coastal communities.
A Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) assessment released in 2016 estimated there are an estimated 33.25 billion barrels of oil or natural gas off the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts and and 3.63 billion in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. By comparison, the same document estimated there are 2.41 billion barrels of oil or natural gas off the Atlantic coast between North Carolina and Delaware.
The same 2017 executive order that called for a new five-year plan also called for BOEM to renew its evaluation of seismic exploration in the Atlantic Ocean. In December, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) asked a quartet of companies for updated information about how their proposals would affect marine life.
While Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., has been a vocal supporter of drilling and offshore exploration, the state’s current administration has pushed for North Carolina’s exclusion from any plan.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has called for the Trump Administration to remove North Carolina from any consideration for the same reasons Zinke tweeted earlier this week he was pulling Florida.
“Offshore drilling represents a critical threat to our coastal economy,” Cooper said in a statement. “Protecting North Carolina families and businesses is my top priority, and we will pursue every option to prevent oil drilling near North Carolina’s beaches, coastal communities, and fishing waters.”
Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at 910-343-2389 or @GateHouseMedia.com.