Contemplating the impact on N. Carolina of offshore drilling

WASHINGTON — If offshore drilling were approved sometime in the future, North Carolina's coastal landscape would almost certainly change.

North Carolina remains one of the East Coast's longest and most undeveloped coastlines: strung with 300 miles of barrier island beaches; home to a national park; and cushioned by sensitive marshlands that protect against floods, cater to two-thirds of the state's vulnerable species and nurse the young populations of shrimp, blue crabs and fish.

Although current legislation would keep rigs at least 50 miles offshore, there would likely be onshore industry to go along with the drilling.

Pipelines would come bumping across the barrier islands, and oil or natural gas processing plants would be built on shore, possibly in the bustling industrial center of Norfolk, Va., but possibly near North Carolina port towns such as Wilmington or Morehead City.

While the danger of oil spills from rigs has been greatly reduced in recent decades, plenty of other environmental challenges remain should North Carolina welcome the industry in the coming decades.

"You're basically imposing a major petroleum industrial activity in the ocean and along the shoreline," said Warren Chabot, vice president of the Ocean Conservancy, a national advocacy group.

Tourists might never see the drilling platforms working far beyond the horizon. Under current proposals in Washington, drilling would have to occur at least 50 miles offshore.

But the oil or natural gas -- or probably both -- would have to come onshore somehow. Pipelines are cheapest. Onshore factories would likely follow.

So what are the environmental risks? The answer, in part, depends on the state's oversight, say experts in North Carolina and elsewhere.

"With sound and solid and consistent state management, offshore drilling should be feasible off North Carolina," said Orrin Pilkey, a Duke University geologist and frequent critic of state coastal land management.

"It's going to be important, but it's going to be difficult," he said. "All we need to do is look at Louisiana."

In the boot-shaped Pelican State, the oil industry has been operating since the early 20th century. There, drilling rigs, oil refineries and gas plants scatter the landscape near the state's coastline, forming a ribbon from Texas to Mississippi.

Tens of thousands of engineers, technicians, truck drivers and support workers toil in the state's refineries and oil transportation system.

Louisiana welcomes oil tankers from foreign countries into its refineries and is home to three of the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserves.

Rigs can be seen from the shoreline. About 8,200 miles of canals slice through the marshes -- troughs dug for oil pipelines that have led to the destruction of 25 square miles of wetlands a year.

"We're more efficient, less disruptive, but I don't that there's anything that can be done that's vastly different from the way we're transporting oil and gas now," said Bill Delmar, assistant director of the Louisiana oil and gas agency's Technology Assessment Division, which compiles data on drilling in the state.

"It's a fairly simple process, and when you get that simple, it's tough to change," Delmar said.

Louisiana, which has asked for billions of dollars from the federal government for its cleanup efforts, is a major player in the nation's energy production industry.

In 2001, the state produced 502 million barrels of oil, about 85 percent of the total pulled from the nation's offshore drilling operation.

"It's ugly," said Lawrence Cahoon, a marine biologist for UNC-Wilmington. "The oil industry dominates things in Louisiana."

A moratorium in 1990

North Carolina is protected by a line of barrier islands, but it, too, has delicate marshlands and estuaries, especially in the sounds tucked behind the Outer Banks.

Back in the 1980s, environmentalists and the state fought plans by Mobil to drill off Cape Hatteras.

Mobil was unable to drill because of the backlash, and in 1990 the first President Bush put in place a presidential moratorium against drilling off the Outer Continental Shelf. The current President Bush lifted that ban this month. A congressional ban remains in place.

The state controls waters within three miles of the shoreline, but the federal government controls the waters from 3 miles to 200 miles offshore.

Environmentalists and oil policy analysts agree that technology has changed in the past two decades.

"Many of their practices, I won't say they're environmentally friendly, but I will say environmentally tolerant," said George Crozier, a marine biologist and former executive director at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama. "I think they've minimized their impact pretty much to the level that they can."

North Carolina could expect to see a variety of new infrastructure:

* Drilling rigs far offshore, either floating atop the waves or anchored on the sea floor. The drilling process brings up "drilling muds," which contain toxic minerals that usually must be disposed of according to state regulations.

* Pipelines bumping across the barrier islands. State rules could require those lines to be piped under the islands or buried under dunes. County ordinances in Dare and Hyde counties currently prohibit pipelines across the islands, Cahoon said.

* New natural gas plants or, possibly, oil refineries sprouting in the state's easternmost regions. And other state regulations could affect where those production plants might go.

* Inland pipelines built to feed natural gas into major national pipelines. Oil or propane might be loaded onto tanker freight cars or trucks to be carted away.

"You have tanks to hold the stuff," Cahoon said. "You have pipelines. You have facilities. What you wind up with is a whole suite of things. ... Getting it out of the ground is only the start of that, and that's not where all of the risk is."

Environmentalists worry about several obstacles.

A landslide on an unstable sea floor could rupture a sub-sea drilling operation, Cahoon said.

Marine mammals such as whales use migratory paths up the East Coast. The industry's sonar operations, used to do seismic testing of where oil or gas might exist, could disturb the whales' routes, said Lincoln Pratson, faculty director of the Energy and Environment program at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.

And off Cape Hatteras, in an area known as the Point, 46 of 47 North Atlantic seabird species congregate each year to mate.

Oil and natural disaster

Perhaps the greatest fear comes with the storms -- hurricanes and otherwise -- that churn the offshore waters or barrel across North Carolina.

"Clearly, the technology has made dramatic improvements," Chabot said. "The spill rate has declined significantly."

Still, when hurricanes Katrina and Rita tore through the Gulf of Mexico, more than a hundred platforms were destroyed.

More than 8 million gallons of oil were spilled in Louisiana alone, according to the state's Sea Grant program. That's two-thirds the amount spilled from the Exxon Valdez accident.

The storms dragged one barge across the gulf floor, stumbling across pipelines as it went.

Massive drilling equipment was thrown up against Interstate 10 in Mobile, Ala.

Things have changed, say those in the oil industry.

For example, there are nearly 4,000 aging drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, many working in small areas. But that's old technology.

New technology allows for one platform to drain several oil fields through directional drilling, said Andy Radford, a policy adviser with the American Petroleum Institute, an industry advocacy group in Washington.

And oil companies have grown used to working in rough seas off Nova Scotia and other harsh areas, he said.

"The environment is not so hostile that we'd be reluctant to operate there," Radford said of the mid-Atlantic.

Wilton Sturges, an oceanographer at Florida State University, worries about taking chances.

Usually, he said, the prevailing winds and waves carry spills onshore.

"The situation to me is not science, not technology, but probability," said Sturges, who has consulted for oil companies. "If something happens and screws up the beaches ... the locals take the hit."

Oil companies have automatic cutoff valves in their pipelines to protect against massive spills. But those valves can be miles apart, and a ruptured line could still dump thousands of gallons of oil, said Kerry St. Pe, a marine biologist and program director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program in Thibodaux, La.

"There's quite a bit that can escape," St. Pe said.

He has led efforts to strengthen regulations in Louisiana and push for billions in federal wetlands restoration funds.

Under new rules, oil companies must report any spill that creates a sheen on the water — even if it's just a teaspoon.

"It can be done safely," St. Pe said. "It can be done in a remarkably safe way, but (regulators) have to be vigilant, and they have to enforce the regulations."