Federal official defends 50-mile offshore buffer

North Carolina’s annual State Energy Conference kicked off Tuesday with a federal official’s defense of a controversial proposal not to allow offshore drilling closer than 50 miles of the state’s coastline.

Abigail Ross Hopper, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, expounded on her agency’s proposed safety buffer just a week after Gov. Pat McCrory warned a congressional committee in Washington, D.C., that such a distance “unnecessarily puts much of North Carolina’s most accessible undiscovered resources under lock and key.”

Hopper was the keynote speaker at the two-day energy conference that attracts industry, investors, academics and public officials to N.C. State University’s McKimmon Center. The conference includes sessions on high-efficiency buildings, energy storage, private financing and public policy.

After her speech, Hopper said the proposed drilling buffer for the Southeast would be by far the widest off-limits exclusion zone in the country.

With the exception of a 25 mile drilling restriction in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska, there are no buffers imposed in federal offshore drilling zones, Hopper said. Offshore energy exploration can typically be conducted where state waters end and federal waters begin, which is as close as 3 miles from shore.

The distance of 50 miles is supported by Virginia officials and would be compatible with Defense Department needs, commercial fishing and environmental concerns, she said. Hopper also noted that barring offshore drilling closer than 50 miles would accommodate offshore wind farm development.

“One of the reasons we proposed a 50-mile buffer is to allow an area for renewable energy,” she said. “It makes sense for each to have its own space to develop.”

Last week McCrory told the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources that a 50-mile exclusion zone would put as much as 40 percent of the state’s oil and gas out of reach. He also said the continental shelf drops off sharply within 50 miles of the coastline, so that drilling farther out would be in deep water and more expensive.

The regulatory process for offshore wind farm development is about five years ahead of offshore drilling. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s lease auction for offshore wind farm development could take place as early as next year, which would allow energy companies to assess the extent of offshore wind resources.

Auctioning federal leases for offshore drilling wouldn’t happen until 2021, and the Southeastern area – comprising North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia – is one of 14 lease sales proposed. A federal lease would grant the bid winners rights to conduct energy exploration; actual drilling would require a separate approval for oil-and-gas production.

“We don’t have a great sense of how much oil-and-gas resource is out there,” Hopper said in her speech.

She said later that the issue is pertinent to North Carolina because offshore waters here contain greater energy potential than other Southeastern states. For that reason her agency to hold frequent public meetings here for offshore drilling and offshore wind farms.

“This is a frontier region,” she said. “North Carolina is in the running for a state that requires the most attention after Alaska.”

Murawski: 919-829-8932