Opinions on drilling off N.C. aren't budging - yet

Staff WriterApril 30, 2010 

The massive oil spill threatening Louisiana's environmentally fragile coast hasn't changed many minds among North Carolina politicians about offshore drilling here, but several say the disaster was a warning.

Senate leader Marc Basnight, whose district includes a swath of northern coast heavily reliant on tourism and fishing - and clean water - said the spill was a reminder of the need to shift to greener sources of energy.

"I'd much rather look out on an ocean populated by wind turbines than oil rigs," he said. "Who wouldn't?"

Basnight, a Democrat, has softened his "never" stance on offshore drilling slightly in recent years, and said the spill hadn't changed his position: that there should be drilling only if energy companies sign ironclad agreements to not only pay for cleaning up any spills but to compensate coastal residents for any resulting loss in income.

Shrimpers and fishermen in Louisiana have already filed a lawsuit, claiming the spill there, which is growing by 5,000 barrels a day and now covers an area 600 miles around, will destroy their industry.

North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue was once opposed to drilling, but in recent months has said that it appears inevitable. She said that if North Carolina must endure the risks, it should be compensated. She was in Europe on a trade mission and vacation Thursday, but spokesman Tim Crowley said the Louisiana spill underlined the wisdom of creating a group of experts.

"It emphasizes the importance of making sure that any drilling off our coast would be safe, which is why the governor put together an advisory panel of experts to review these issues and make recommendations," Crowley said.

In Washington, the spill has complicated President Barack Obama's plan to expand offshore oil drilling in areas long out of bounds to energy development, forcing administration officials to promise a more critical look at the potential environmental risks. White House officials acknowledged Thursday that the explosion could affect decisions on offshore drilling, depending on what investigators determine caused the accident.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said depending on the cause, the spill could affect what areas would be viewed as acceptable for drilling - or even change the president's viewpoint on new offshore oil drilling.

"We need to learn from the incident," said White House energy adviser Carol Browner. She said those lessons "will be folded in" as the Interior Department goes through a lengthy process of issuing offshore oil development leases.

But Gibbs and Browner said that - at least for now - Obama remains committed to plans to expand offshore drilling to new areas of the Outer Continental Shelf.

Republicans have long called for more drilling, and the administration hopes allowing that will win some GOP votes in Congress for a bill to trim air pollution blamed for global warming.

Beginning the process

Federal officials are already laying some of the groundwork for exploration here, including a hearing Thursday in Wilmington on the effects of underwater seismic testing to help find places to drill. The hearing prompted representatives of several environmental groups to cite the Gulf spill as a reason not to drill.

That opposition to drilling before it begins isn't a surprise, said state Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger.

"There is no question that the rabid environmentalists are determined to halt any expansion of traditional energy supplies," Berger said.

Berger said that nothing he had heard about the circumstances of the spill made him think there was reason to reconsider drilling here. Energy exploration could create jobs and income for the state while reducing the nation's dependence on foreign supplies, he said.

"You don't hear calls from Louisiana and Texas to stop the oil and gas industry, and they are the ones directly affected by this," he said.

The drilling industry, he said, has an extraordinary environmental record in the Gulf, with thousands of wells operating for years with nothing approaching the size of the current spill.

What's more, the situation off North Carolina's coast is substantially different, he said. It's more likely that energy companies would find natural gas than oil, which means no spills, he said.

Lincoln Pratson, a professor of energy and environment at Duke University and an expert in undersea geology, confirmed that gas reserves off the state's coast are more plentiful than oil.

Our spill, their problem

After the oil rig exploded April 20 and sank two days later, Pratson checked the likely locations for drilling here. In some areas, he said, drilling could come relatively close to the coast, perhaps 20 miles out, but much of it could be in the Gulf Stream or beyond it.

The Gulf Stream is a warm current that moves up the East Coast and flows so quickly that it likely prevent a spill from coming ashore, he said, in effect making a spill here a problem elsewhere.

Of course, no one even knows if there's oil here to spill.

"We're not going to know what's we've got out there until we put a drill bit down," Pratson said.

A Three Mile Island?

An Elon University poll conducted partly before the oil rig exploded and partly afterward found that nearly two out of three Carolinians support offshore drilling here. Pratson predicts that the spill will begin to bend public opinion against drilling if it continues to grow and do serious damage to the Gulf coastline.

It could become the fossil-fuel equivalent of the Three Mile Island disaster, he said. The accident in 1979 soured public opinion on nuclear power and helped end the construction of new nuclear reactors for decades.

jay.price@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4526

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