President Donald Trump promised an America-First offshore energy strategy that could include drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has made opposition to drilling a centerpiece of his new administration.
“I can sum it up in four words: Not off our coast,” Cooper said last month. “It is simply not worth the risk.”
Now North Carolina residents are getting their chance to have their voices heard on the issue. About 175 people attended and 45 people spoke at an N.C. Department of Environmental Quality public event in Wilmington on Monday night, according to Bridget Munger with the state’s DEQ.
It was the first of three DEQ-sponsored events this week. The deadline for states to submit comments to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is Aug. 17. DEQ is accepting public comments through Aug. 15.
“We’ll utilize whatever information we get to better inform what our comments are going to be,” Munger said. “Our recommendations and comments would certainly support the governor’s position completely.”
Under the current five-year National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, in place from 2017 to 2022, no oil and gas leases are available in the Atlantic Ocean. But Trump signed an executive order in April ordering a new five-year program that could include leases in the Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic. The new program will go into effect in 2019, supplanting the previous one.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the majority of speakers expressed opposition to the sale of leases. All but three speakers were critics of plans to drill off the coast of North Carolina.
“People really care. People are having to dig through the misinformation on jobs, misinformation totally across the board on what a benefit it’s going to be to this state,” said Randy Sturgill, senior campaign organizer for the Southeast United States for Oceana, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans. “Does that come at the cost of what we already have, which is pretty darn remarkable?”
Sturgill said many near the coast are worried about an environmental disaster, like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, that could devastate the tourism business and related industries along the coast.
“Washington is going to hear the cries of the Atlantic Coast residents,” said Sturgill, who is based in Southport.
The opposition was heard during the Obama administration, said Erin Carey, coastal coordinator for the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club.
“One of the key components of their decision not to include the Atlantic Coast was that grassroots uprising,” Carey said. “I would like to think that the Trump administration would have the same respect for public opinion as the Obama administration did. Once the Obama administration realized the plurality or majority were against offshore drilling, they backed off. I would hope that this administration, regardless of who is heading it, would have the same respect for the citizens of the state.”
Public Policy Polling, in a report for the Natural Resources Defense Council, found that 51 percent of North Carolina residents were “very concerned” and 19 percent were “somewhat concerned” about the federal government’s plan to begin drilling off the North Carolina coast.
But a proponent of offshore drilling said it would take nearly a decade – and plenty of opportunities for public comment – before any drilling rigs were active in the Atlantic. While this comment period is about lease sales, the government recently concluded a comment period on seismic testing, which allows for the exploration and mapping of offshore oil and gas reserves but could have adverse effects on marine life.
“We believe it’s prudent and almost imperative on us as a country and a state to understand what our resources are through updated seismic research – what those resources are, where they are, how much there is – and then have a robust public debate about the pros and cons of drilling going forward,” said David McGowan, executive director of the North Carolina Petroleum Council.
“We can’t have that informed debate until we know better what the resources are and how much is there. Then we can do the math and have that debate.”
The Interior Department said the last geological and geophysical seismic data for the Mid-Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf was collected in the 1980s. A 2016 BOEM assessment of “undiscovered technically recoverable” oil and gas resources off the Mid-Atlantic coast, which includes North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland, claimed that there were 2.41 billion barrels of oil and 24.63 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
McGowan called Cooper’s decision to oppose seismic testing and offshore drilling so early in the process “short-sighted” and said it could harm North Carolina when it comes to offsetting environmental harm and sharing revenue should the process move forward.
“He would be much better served participating in (the process), rather than saying, ‘No, I oppose this outright,’ ” McGowan said.
Said Cooper spokesman Ford Porter: “Offshore drilling represents a critical threat to our coastal economy while offering little potential benefit to the state.”
The issue splits Atlantic Coast governors. Cooper, a first-term Democrat, is opposed, and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a first-term Republican, is a skeptic. But Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, supports drilling as long the state gets a share of the revenue.
It also splits Republicans in North Carolina’s congressional delegation. Rep. Walter Jones, who represents the coast from the Virginia border to Pender County, has opposed drilling in the past as a states’ rights issue, while Rep. Richard Hudson, who represents the inland 8th District, wrote a letter to Trump urging the president to include Atlantic lease sales in future plans.
“To put it simply, Governor Cooper is wrong,” Hudson said last month. “This is not an either-or situation. We can open North Carolina to energy exploration and development while protecting our beautiful coastal waters as well as our tourism and ocean industries.”
The DEQ will host a second hearing Wednesday in Morehead City and a final one Thursday in Manteo. The hearings are from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
DEQ is also accepting comments via mail and email. More than 70 emails have been sent in already, Munger said.
People can comment at the hearings or submit comments in writing to: Timothy Webster, 217 West Jones St., 1601 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, N.C., 27699-1601, or by email to: email@example.com. All comments are due by Aug. 15.
Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; @MurphinDC