Offshore Drilling Series Begins

First of a series

For the first time in almost three decades, the federal government is considering opening up the Atlantic Ocean off the N.C. coast to oil and natural gas drilling. The first of the many environmental studies has been drafted, the first of the many public hearings has been held. And the first of many questions has been raised.

How much oil or gas is out there? When will they go get it and where will they drill? Will it come ashore somewhere along our coast? Will the price of gasoline drop as a result? Will drilling generate any jobs for local people or much money for the state treasury? Where will that oil go if there is an accident or spill?

Coastal Review Online this week begins to answer those questions and many more. This is the first of more than 40 stories that we will publish over the next two months on offshore drilling and its potential effects on the N.C. coast. In our most ambitious reporting project, seven reporters have spent several months talking to dozens of people trying to determine what drilling might mean to the state’s coastal environment, economy and lifestyle.

We’ll run the results of all that reporting on alternate weeks, starting this week with stories about the history of drilling in North Carolina, the geology of the Atlantic Ocean and why oil or gas might be out there, the federal process that manages offshore drilling and the politics in Raleigh that are promoting it.

Other stories in the series will explore the potential benefits of drilling to the state’s economy and the likely environmental effects on the coast in the event of a spill or accident. We’ll poll coastal residents to gauge their support for drilling, and two reporters traveled the coast, from Calabash to Corolla, talking to people about the subject.

Setting the Stage

First, though, let’s catch up as to where we are.

The Obama Administration did the expected in late January and announced plans to potentially open portions of the Atlantic coast, including offshore North Carolina, to oil and natural gas drilling for the first time since Mobil Oil proposed an exploratory well off the Outer Banks in the mid-1980s.

In keeping with Obama’s all-of-the above approach to energy development, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, released a draft five-year leasing plan that would begin in 2017. The plan includes all federal waters 50 miles off the mid- and south-Atlantic coasts, from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to the Georgia-Florida border. Also included in the plan are areas in the central and western Gulf of Mexico and off the north coast of Alaska.

The proposed leasing plan is the initial step in a long, tortuous federal permitting and review process for offshore leasing, exploration and finally production. That process for the Atlantic, where no wells exist, will take more than a decade to play out if it continues to move forward.

The announcement followed a decision by the Obama administration last year to allow companies to use sound waves to survey the seafloor in the Atlantic in search of oil and natural gas. These so-called seismic tests are controversial because critics charge that they can harm marine mammals, such as whale and dolphins.

BOEM has since received 10 applications from companies to conduct the tests. Four of those applicants want to survey off North Carolina’s coast and more applications are expected, according to state regulators. The state has approved three of the applications so far, and testing could begin later this year.

Battle Lines Form

Offshore drilling has a contentious history along the N.C. coast, and it soon became clear that a fight is brewing this time as well. The first skirmish was in Wrightsville Beach about a month after BOEM announced the leasing plan. The spark was the first of the agency’s two public hearings in North Carolina on the plan.

Drilling proponents gathered that afternoon across the waterway in downtown Wilmington. Over boxed lunches supplied by the country’s largest oil industry trade group, the crowd of mostly businessmen listened to speakers extol the benefits of drilling: good-paying jobs, money for state and local budgets, energy independence and strengthened national security.

The message mirrored the one that Gov. Pat McCrory has been taking all across North Carolina. As the leading drilling cheerleader in the state, McCrory has promoted offshore drilling in testimony before Congress, urged BOEM to allow exploration closer to shore and supported exploring for oil and natural gas within three miles of the state’s coastline. He also heads a group of East Coast governors who have been urging Obama to open up the Atlantic to drilling.

Using an industry-sponsored economic study, McCrory has said offshore drilling will provide thousands of new jobs in the state and contribute more than $9 billion to the state treasury by 2035. In later stories, we’ll explore the accuracy of those predictions and the oil industry’s close ties to the governors’ group that McCrory heads.

There wasn’t much talk about jobs at the press conference that 10 environmental groups held at the hotel where BOEM had its meeting that day in Wrightsville Beach. The BP Deepwater Horizon was the featured attraction. One wall was dominated by a huge photograph of the oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 in the worst oil spill in U.S. history. It was engulfed in flames and ringed by fire boats spewing jets of water.

Speaker after speaker raised the specter of oil-encased seabirds, blackened beaches and a dying tourism economy if something like that were to happen here. We’ll examine the likelihood of all that during the second week of the series.

More than 400 people attended the BOEM hearing that day in Wrightsville Beach. Almost 700 showed up a month later at a similar hearing in Nags Head, the largest turnout in BOEM’s five-year history.

“I would say we have heard from a lot of people who are opposed,” an agency spokeswoman said afterwards.

At least a dozen communities along the coast have passed resolutions opposed to offshore drilling, seismic testing or both.

And in Manteo a group of old oil warriors began organizing again for a fight they thought they had won 25 years ago.

Tuesday: Mobil Oil and the history of drilling along the N.C. coast.

About the Author

Frank Tursi

The author of three books and a 30-year newspaper veteran, Frank Tursi is the founding editor of "Coastal Review Online." He retired in 2016. Before joining the federation in 2002, Frank was the senior environmental reporter in North Carolina. His writing has won numerous state and national awards. An avid fisherman and model boat builder, he lives in Swansboro with his wife, Doris, where Frank is a town commissioner.