WASHINGTON — For years, North Carolina's leaders stood together in the fight against offshore drilling. But they wavered as the economy worsened and gas prices rose.
On Wednesday, after President Barack Obama announced that he will open a major swath of the East Coast - including the waters off North Carolina - to oil and natural gas exploration, state politicians made clear that they viewed energy exploration as a near certainty.
"The federal government is moving forward with this plan with or without us," Gov. Bev Perdue said in a statement. She said she will remain "aggressively engaged" in protecting the state's economy and environment.
State Senate leader Marc Basnight, a Manteo Democrat whose district includes the fragile Outer Banks, said he would insist that oil or gas production protect state resources and that the state should share in the revenues.
"There could be a situation where I would say yes," said Basnight, who has appointed a legislative commission to study offshore drilling. He would want guarantees "that if damage was done it would be corrected and those who lost would be reimbursed."
Obama wants to open the Atlantic coastline from Delaware to northern Florida for exploration. Exploration will still be banned off the West Coast, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar acknowledged.
"The areas are too special," he told reporters Wednesday. "There is strong opposition to development from the governors of those states."
That opposition has diminished on the East Coast, and in North Carolina. In addition to Perdue and Basnight, the state's congressional delegation has shown breaks in what used to be solid opposition. All Republican members now support offshore drilling.
U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican, said he hopes the administration will move quickly. "If resources off the coast of North Carolina can be produced responsibly, they should be part of the solution," Burr said.
A political ploy?
Some observers saw Obama's announcement as a move to gain centrist and Republican support before diving into the controversial climate change bill being considered this spring.
"Nothing really has materially changed except the politics," said Frank Tursi of the N.C. Coastal Federation. "This thing only makes sense in the game that's being played up there in Washington."
Environmental groups were incensed.
"It makes absolutely no sense to threaten the coast of North Carolina with spills and other disasters when we're about to unleash the real solutions - cleaner cars and cleaner fuels," said Margaret Hartzell, policy advocate for Environment North Carolina.
Said Derb Carter of the Southern Environmental Law Center: "One oil spill could devastate a coast."
Obama wants to open the Outer Continental Shelf of the East Coast to exploration in the Interior Department's next long-term plan.
"There will be those who strongly disagree with this decision, those who say we should not open any new areas to drilling," Obama said. But he described the choice as one of energy security.
"This announcement is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies on homegrown fuels and clean energy," he said. "And the only way this transition will succeed is if it strengthens our economy in the short term and the long term."
Obama said he won't allow plans to hurt coastlines. "We'll protect areas that are vital to tourism and the environment," he said Wednesday.
Thomas Skains, chairman and CEO of Charlotte-based Piedmont Natural Gas, said the industry can co-exist with good environmental practices.
Impact on coast
"The natural gas industry has thrived in other parts of our country," Skains said. "Vast amounts are developed off the coast of Alabama, but at the same time the beaches in Alabama and the panhandle of Florida are some of the most beautiful in our nation."
But Basnight traveled this winter to Dauphin Island, Ala., to see the impacts of offshore drilling on the coastline, and the onshore production facilities. "It was not attractive at all," he said. "Once you go about two or three miles inland ... you see petrochemical plants and they are certainly about as ugly as anything you could see."
The administration plan calls for seismic exploration in the mid- and south Atlantic to learn more about oil and natural gas resources.
Lease sales - which companies purchase for the right to drill in an area - could proceed from there, but not before 2012.
"The fact of the matter is we know very little about the Atlantic because the information we have is 30 years old," Salazar told reporters Wednesday.
Only after updating that information would companies begin to figure out whether the fossil fuels can be found in the Outer Continental Shelf - and whether drilling would be worthwhile. Production is likely at least a decade off.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-383-0012