25 Years Later, Studies Still Needed

More than 25 years ago, Congress ordered a scientific assessment of the research that needed to be done to better inform decision about opening up the N.C. coast to offshore oil and gas drilling.

The scientists met and filed their report, which sits somewhere in an archives of the U.S. Department of Interior.

Nothing much was done with it, noted Charles “Pete” Peterson, one of those scientists. The scientific issues it raised, he said, are still prevalent today as the federal government once again considers allowing drilling off the state’s coast.

“It really hasn’t been pursued to any large degree,” said Peterson, a researcher at the University of North Carolina’s Institute of Marines Sciences in Morehead City.  “And it’s fairly easy to see why. There just wasn’t any need, as long as oil production in the area was not seen as a real, immediate likelihood.”

That wasn’t the case in the early 1990s. Mobil Oil’s Corp’s plan to drill a test well off the Outer Banks raised a considerable public and political fight, and the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in 1989 spurred action in Washington.

Congress adopted the Oil Pollution Act in 1990, which included a section known as the Outer Banks Protection Act. It prohibited drilling off the N.C. coast until a panel of scientists submitted a report to the secretary of Interior. Peterson was on that panel.

The panel was charged with reviewing existing information and preparing a list of recommended studies to fill in the gaps. The idea, explained Peterson, was to advise the Interior department about research that was needed to better evaluate the environmental implications of oil and gas exploration and production off the N.C. coast.

Specifically, the panel was directed to assess the adequacy of information about the physical oceanography, the ecology and the socio-economics of the people who lived on the coast, and who would be affected by the oil and gas industry.

Pete Petersom

Pete Petersom

In general, Peterson said, the panel found significant gaps in the information in all of those areas, and recommended a number of studies, among them efforts to better understand the dynamics of meanders of the Gulf Stream; the importance of sargassum as habitat for whales, dolphin and sea turtles; the ecological processes on the continental shelf and slope; and the socio-economics.

The panel submitted its report to Interior in 1992. The secretary was to certify that the research would be done or wasn’t needed before drilling off the N.C. coast could begin, but Congress rescinded the act in 1996.

In the years that followed, Peterson said, there was not a tremendous impetus to fill in those science gaps, as pressure for offshore oil exploration and production off North Carolina faded. A lot has been learned since the report was completed, he noted.  Research, for instance, has revealed the significance of The Point off Hatteras and the meanders of the Gulf Steam.

The bottom line, Peterson said, is that there is still not a clear understanding – not really even adequate baseline data – on such things as the numbers of people who would be affected, and the numbers of jobs lost and people displaced – if oil and its infrastructure came into the area.

“There obviously has been some work done, but nowhere nearly enough,” he said. “I would say in general that while we have made good progress on the oceanographic and ecological information that was needed back in the 1990s, we really no very little more about the socio-economics than we did at that time. And it’s still very important to know those things if we’re going to move forward.”

About the Author

Brad Rich

Brad Rich is a reporter for the Carteret County News-Times in Morehead City. He has written about fishery and environmental issues along the central North Carolina coast for 35 years. He lives in Hubert with his wife, Gwen.