Supporters and opponents of offshore drilling gathered in Raleigh on Monday for the state’s only public hearing on the Trump administration’s controversial plan to open up the Atlantic coast for oil and gas exploration.
State Rep. Duane Hall, a Democrat who represents Raleigh, told the crowd of several hundred people – many of them from coastal counties – to consider why the federal government chose to hold the state’s only public hearing hundreds of miles from their homes.
“He didn’t think you guys would drive in on buses, take the day off, but Donald Trump was wrong,” Hall said. “I think there might be more people here than at his inauguration.”
Michael Regan, the secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, said he asked Trump’s interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, to hold at least one meeting near the coast, but was rebuffed. The crowd booed the mention of Zinke’s name, and Regan said Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the state’s environmental regulators are committed to fighting federal plans to expand offshore drilling.
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“We are here standing shoulder to shoulder with every one of you, letting them know their plan is not OK with the people of North Carolina,” Regan said.
Regan, Hall and other anti-drilling speakers said oil spills would be an ever-present threat to the state’s environment, its tourism and fishing industries, and coastal people’s way of life.
But at a different news conference earlier in the day, supporters of offshore drilling and energy exploration made their case.
The oil and gas industry would create good-paying, full-time jobs here if companies were allowed to prospect and later drill for oil and natural gas, they said. If the country gets more of its resources domestically instead of from other countries, the cost of gasoline and electric bills will drop, they added.
“We should always help and endeavor to help the families of North Carolina,” said Rev. Gilbert Parker. He is the president of the North Carolina Faith Fellowship Program and a former aide to the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.
A flier provided by the pro-drilling speakers said opening up the coast to the energy industry would create more than 50,000 jobs in North Carolina with an average salary of $101,000 a year. Anti-drilling activists said it would be more like 1,000 jobs, mostly for out-of-state workers instead of locals. Neither side cited any evidence for their wildly different claims.
David McGowan, who leads the North Carolina branch of the American Petroleum Institute, said offshore drilling is a “challenging, passionate issue,” but one that warrants debate. He said Eastern North Carolina could use stable jobs, and there’s no sense in letting the state’s resources go unused.
“Why shouldn’t we do our part to produce these resources here at home?” McGowan said.
Matthew Horsley, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who lives in Pinehurst, said he’d rather not see the military send more troops to fight overseas to protect oil supplies when more could be produced in the United States.
Several of the pro-drilling speakers mentioned national security and the 1970s oil crisis caused by a boycott of the U.S. by some of the countries in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. However, the U.S. now gets more oil from Canada than it does from all the OPEC countries combined.
Opponents said no argument was going to sway them, and Hall said it appears that even Trump doesn’t really believe drilling is safe. While Trump’s original plan would have opened up the whole country’s coast to drilling, his administration later exempted one state – Florida, where the president owns a resort in Mar-a-Lago.
“Donald Trump isn’t willing to take that risk in Florida because he has a mansion on the coast,” Hall said.
The Trump administration’s stated reason for exempting Florida was not the presence of his resort, but rather the potential negative impact of offshore drilling on the tourism industry.
And several coastal opponents, ranging from a pizzeria owner to a professional fisherman, said they want the White House to know beach tourism is a large industry in North Carolina, too.
“Not only would one drop of oil on our shores cost us billions of dollars in revenue, it would cost us our way of life,” said Rep. Deb Butler, a Wilmington Democrat.
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran