Oil and gas drilling would threaten NC coast

March 11, 2014 

One of North Carolina’s greatest assets isn’t in North Carolina. It’s the blue waters off its coast. The Atlantic Ocean provides fine fishing and boating and supports a coastal real estate and tourism industry.

Why would a North Carolina governor want to diminish or risk that asset in any way? Yet that’s what Gov. Pat McCrory is willing to do in his push to bring drilling for oil and gas off the state’s coast.

The governor says drilling rigs would create jobs and advance the nation’s energy independence. But it wouldn’t do much for North Carolinians who need work today. And, thanks to the inland boom in hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, the nation has ample energy. Beyond that, government assessments suggest there isn’t much oil and gas off the East Coast and what’s there is a small fraction of the amount still beneath the Gulf of Mexico.

But the thinness of his reasons hasn’t stopped the governor from pressing to lift a federal moratorium on offshore drilling. Unfortunately, McCrory and other governors in the group he chairs, the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition, are making progress. And there’s reason to fear that the Obama administration will go along. President Obama supported lifting a decades-old ban on East Coast drilling, but then he extended the moratorium for seven years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management recently endorsed a plan for seismic surveying in Atlantic waters to identify oil and gas deposits. The surveying must still be approved by the Secretary of the Interior, but the bureau’s endorsement is a step toward opening the waters from Delaware Bay to Cape Canaveral, Fla. to oil and gas exploration. The Interior Department said oil and and gas contractors already have submitted nine applications to conduct seismic surveys, though the work wouldn’t start until 2017.

With that first step comes the first of what could be many concerns. Environmental groups warn that seismic surveys could harm whales, dolphins, sea turtles and other marine animals. The surveys involve firing airguns underwater to map what’s below the ocean floor. The frequent blasts during a typical two- to three-week survey can reach up to 250 decibels underwater. The sound intensity of a jet engine is about 140 decibels.

Supporters of the seismic surveying say research shows little damage to marine life outside of the immediate sound-blast zone. And the use of low-level warning sounds will prod most fish and seas mammals to move away from the sound.

But opponents of the process say that its effects have not been deeply researched and that damage caused by changes in migratory patterns and the impairment of marine animals could be hard to trace but extensive.

Michael Stocker, director of the nonprofit advocacy group Ocean Conservation Research in Lagunitas, Calif., told National Geographic, “Most animals in the ocean use sound the way animals on land use eyesight. And when we talk about saturating their environment with noise, it’s going to have some impact, regardless of whether we know what that impact is.”

Though there are unknowns about underwater air blasts and marine animals, we are no longer uncertain about the effect of global warming. Opening new fields of fossil fuels only feeds the problem.

Energy efforts should focus on conservation, efficiency and alternatives. The governor would do better for North Carolina by spurring the state’s rising solar power industry, which would create jobs immediately. And he could do more for energy independence by promoting windmills, not oil rigs, along the coast.

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