North Carolina’s two Republican U.S. Senators stoked the already controversial Keystone XL pipeline debate when they pushed to add a measure that would also open up the Atlantic coast to offshore drilling.
U.S. Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr introduced an amendment Thursday to the Senate Keystone pipeline proposal that would allow drilling up the coast from Florida to Delaware in search of oil and gas resources. In return, the states would receive a share of oil and gas revenue from the energy companies.
The amendment is likely to be nothing more than a political statement because President Barack Obama has promised to veto the proposed Keystone pipeline bill. And Obama already has approved seismic exploration for oil and gas in the Atlantic, which many environmentalists see as a precursor to eventual drilling. Obama is expected to make an announcement on the issue soon.
Those facts haven’t stopped critics from seizing on the North Carolina Republicans’ proposal. Environmental advocacy groups see it as an attack on the country’s national and state treasures, including North Carolina’s fragile barrier islands. Claire Douglass , a campaign director for the advocacy group Oceana considers the revenue sharing money that states would receive as part of the proposal akin to hush money. The companies pay it so leaders won’t say anything about what they’ll be doing off the coast, she said.
“It’s basically bribe money to garner support,” Douglass said. “Usually when you’re paying off states – it’s probably not good. You don’t put these kind of bribes in place if it’s in the best interest of the local economies.”
Companies are already drilling offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, where the first phase of revenue sharing is in place with four states, including Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon that killed 11 people and spilled more than 200 million gallons of oil into the gulf is still fresh in the minds of many coastal communities.
Chris Jackson, manager of the Aussie Island Surf Shop in Wilmington, N.C., remembers watching on television as oil washed up on the beaches along the Gulf Coast tourist towns. He wondered would happen to the local tourism and lifestyle if something similar happened in North Carolina.
“It was terrible,” said Jackson, who has managed the shop for the past 15 years. “We live here. We love to enjoy the beach ourselves. And it’s going to mess it up for our sons and daughters. It would be bad, for sure.”
The BP disaster also focused dramatic levels of attention on the risk of offshore drilling. It also led to increased regulatory oversight and enforcement activities.
Tillis is taking on the controversial subject as one of his first legislative pushes as a new senator. In his first floor speech, on Thursday, Tillis said he wanted to fulfill a campaign promise to find opportunities for economic growth. The proposal, he said, would create jobs for North Carolina residents and put the country on better track to energy independence.
“When utility bills and gas prices increase, hard-working Americans face hardship and struggle to make ends meet,” Tillis said from the floor. “We need to make that easier and lift the burden on those hard-working taxpayers.”
He cited an energy industry study that found offshore drilling in the Atlantic could generate $4 billion in state revenue and support more than 55,000 jobs in North Carolina.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory praised the Tillis and Burr proposal as “a step in the right direction to help get North Carolina into the energy business,” in a statement. McCrory, a Republican and longtime Duke Energy executive, has helped lead a group of mostly Republican leaders who support launching oil and gas exploration off of the East Coast. But it’s not only Republicans. Last year, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, joined in the push.
If the country wants to remain a world leader in oil and gas production, it has to be committed to looking for resources in new areas, said Brian Straessle, spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute.
“And the Atlantic coast is an area where there’s a lot of interest both from industry and folks in the states along the coast and policy makers,” he said.