President Donald Trump’s move last week to expand offshore drilling in the Atlantic and Arctic oceans rekindles the debate over the viability of oil and gas drilling and seismic testing off the coast of North Carolina.
Trump’s executive order calls for the Department of Interior to return hundreds of miles of federal waters back to eligibility for offshore drilling, areas that were marked off-limits by the Obama administration just last year.
Trump’s order also calls for streamlining permits for seismic testing, a means of pinpointing oil and gas trapped beneath the ocean floor. But David McGowan, executive director of the N.C. Petroleum Council, an industry trade group, says that even under the most favorable conditions, the process – which involves hearings, studies and reviews – would take at least a decade before oil rigs pumped the first barrel.
Before the offshore energy initiative was scrapped, then-President Barack Obama’s Interior Department imposed a 50-mile buffer between the nearest drilling operation and the coastline. However, McGowan said that decades-old data collected by the energy industry show that oil and gas reserves are likely at least 40 miles off North Carolina’s coast and extend out to 100 miles.
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During Obama’s second term, federal officials were well into the process of developing seismic testing standards when the mid-Atlantic zone, which includes offshore North Carolina, was dropped from consideration for drilling after opposition from residents, fishing interests and the shipping industry.
Thirty-two local governments, many heavily dependent of tourism for their economies, passed resolutions against drilling, according to Oceana, a group that opposes drilling.
Trump’s decision to restart the process concerns environmentalists, who say the drilling and testing is harmful to marine life and to small coastal towns.
“It’s not just about the spills,” said Sierra Weaver, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “You’re going to have a lot of lower-level pollution that’s going to affect the tourism and fishing industries.”
She said that drilling would bring heavy industry and construction traffic through coastal towns dependent on tourism.
On the other side of the issue, the N.C. Petroleum Council said in a statement that energy drilling can “safely coexist” with tourism, fishing and other interests. The group said domestic energy production will strengthen national security and local economies.
McGowan said offshore energy exploration would spur local manufacturing, creating jobs for electricians, welders and other contractors who would be needed to support the onshore staging compounds and offshore drilling rigs. Additionally, the state and possibly local governments would potentially receive federal royalty payments to compensate for the offshore energy exploration in federal waters, McGowan said.
The prospects of economic payoff prompted Brunswick and Carteret county commissioners to pass resolutions in favor of drilling in 2015, the only two local governments on the East Coast to pass such resolutions, according to Oceana.
Former Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, chaired the Outer Contintental Shelf Governors Coalition of governors promoting offshore drilling. McCrory even objected to the 50-mile buffer in a 2015 Congressional hearing, saying it put some energy resources under lock and key.
A spokesman for Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said in an email that Trump’s recent order is “of great concern for many families and businesses on our coast.”
“Gov. Cooper has said that if North Carolina’s portion of the Atlantic coast opens for drilling, important mitigations need to be in place to address the potential risk of environmental damage as well as the risk to our tourism economies and recreational and commercial fishing,” spokesman Ford Porter wrote in the email.
Momentum has been building for a reassessment of the decades-old national policy that bans coastal drilling to protect against potential oil spills. In 2010, presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Obama embraced the idea under the banner of energy independence and job creation.
But the Obama administration slowed the process after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon accident that disgorged 4.9 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days before it was plugged.
Last year, the Obama administration eliminated the Atlantic from the drilling lineup entirely after hundreds of people submitted public comments and turned out for public hearings on the Outer Banks and in Wilmington.
“Numerous stakeholders, including many citizens living along the Atlantic coast and their public officials, expressed concern that oil and gas activities and their potential impacts could jeopardize existing economic activities and the health of important contributors to coastal economies,” the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management wrote last year in a preliminary report.
Doug Nowacek, a Duke University professor in marine conservation technology, said in an interview Monday that drilling far offshore does not necessarily offer coastal protection from oil spills, as much of the spill would eventually be carried into coastal estuaries.
The federal process, which will again be managed by the agency, will take several years. It will ultimately determine who gets to bid on leasing federal ocean waters for energy development, and which ocean “parcels” would be free of conflicts with military, commercial and fishing uses.
Among the first of the exploration activities that would take place would be seismic testing to determine the best likely locations to sink test wells. The use of seismic cannons is controversial because the underwater explosions could stun or harm dolphins and other aquatic animals that depend on sonar.
Federal estimates put the mid-Atlantic zone, which includes North Carolina and three other states, at 2.4 billion barrels of oil and 23.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas of recoverable energy, but the most recent data was collected in the 1980s. The Gulf of Mexico, by contrast, holds about 20 times that volume of oil.