Politics & Government

Governor wants North Carolina, like Florida, exempted from new offshore drilling plan

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks about the Trump Administration's energy policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks about the Trump Administration's energy policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, Friday, Sept. 29, 2017. AP

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper wants his state to be treated just like Florida when it comes to offshore oil drilling.

Cooper, a Democrat, requested that North Carolina be exempted from last week’s Interior Department proposal to open the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to offshore drilling.

But North Carolina’s leaders aren’t a united front. Most Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation have said they supported either offshore drilling or exploration of drilling – including Sen. Richard Burr and Sen. Thom Tillis, Rep. George Holding of Raleigh and Rep. David Rouzer of Johnston County, who represents the southern half of North Carolina’s coast including Wilmington.

The same goes for Reps. Ted Budd of Davie County, Robert Pittenger of Charlotte, Richard Hudson of Concord and Mark Walker of Greensboro.

To cap off his 100 days in office, Trump signed an executive order that will expand offshore oil drilling in federal waters and open other areas that were previously off limits to new oil and gas exploration.

Florida and its Republican Gov. Rick Scott received an exemption Tuesday from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, seemingly opening the door for states to request exemptions.

“The Trump Administration, through their decision on Florida, has admitted that offshore drilling is a threat to coastal economies and tourism,” Cooper said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “Offshore drilling holds the same risks for North Carolina as it does for Florida and North Carolina deserves the same exemption.”

In announcing Florida’s exemption, Zinke said to reporters: “Our tactic was open everything up, then meet with the governors, meet with the stakeholders so that when we shaped it, it was right. The president made it very clear that local voices count.”

In a July 26 letter to Zinke, 36 Republican senators including Burr and Tillis wrote: “Offshore leasing benefits the economies of all the states, helps reduce the federal deficit, provides affordable energy to families and businesses, and strengthens our national security.”

Cooper, in his own letter to Zinke on Wednesday, requested a phone call or a meeting to discuss North Carolina.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, said Wednesday he also intends to ask for an exemption for his state.

Democrats and some Republicans, including South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, said they thought the decision to grant Florida an exemption was politically motivated. Scott is considering a Senate bid, and President Donald Trump has already publicly called on Scott to run against incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson. Republicans hold a 51-49 edge in the Senate.

Asked what steps other coastal states could take to get an exemption, Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat said: “Have a hotly contested U.S. Senate race where the President worked the administration in order to create an electoral advantage for a challenger? No, not that I can think of.”

Rep. Walter Jones, who represents the north half of North Carolina’s coast, is opposed. He signed a letter along with about 100 other lawmakers asking Zinke to remove much of the Atlantic coast from the drilling proposal.

“We urge you to heed the voice of local government leaders and military experts who have expressed strong opposition to offshore drilling and exploration in these regions. Oil and gas development off our shores would threaten our coastal economies, conflict with critical military training activities, and violate core conservative principles,” the letter said.

Walker is a supporter of offshore drilling as part of an “all of the above” energy plan. But he said all states should be treated the same.

“Federal policies should not treat North Carolina differently than any other state,” Walker said. “Any waiver should be available across the board.”

Zinke’s proposal is still in its 60-day comment period. The plan, which would cover 2019-2024, would make almost 90 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf available for oil and natural gas drilling. The plan calls for 47 potential lease sites, including nine off the Atlantic coast, where there have been none since 1983.

Rouzer said the proposal is “the starting point of a long regulatory process that will solicit input and opinions from all interested parties.”

Environmental groups said governors and other stakeholders still have time to have their voices heard.

“We’ve been encouraging governors to weigh in often and loudly since the beginning of the process. Sec. Zinke should be listening to them,” said Alexandra Adams, legislative director for the Nature program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This shouldn’t pit neighboring states against each other. ... All the states up and down the Atlantic should be thinking about this together.”

The Florida exemption has served to highlight other states, cities and communities who have pushed back against offshore drilling – or even exploration.

“One hundred and forty communities up and down the east coast have said they don’t want drilling in their back yard. What about them?” said Nat Mund, federal affairs director for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “There are clear economic and environmental interests in protecting the coasts. It’s not clear the administration is going to hear any of these concerns.”

But North Carolina Republicans point out that there are economic advantages to pursuing offshore oil and natural gas.

“Eastern North Carolina desperately needs a new source of good-paying jobs,” Pittenger said. “Energy exploration is good for North Carolina’s economy, as is solar, which I’ve supported. Florida can make their own decisions.”

Holding said he favors offshore drilling “as long as it can be done in a way that doesn’t harm the environment, doesn’t harm fishing” and as long the production is not visible from the shoreline.

Coons, for one, doesn’t think Zinke’s original plan will be implemented.

“As you hear more and more from Atlantic Coast states that they don’t see the upside, this will ultimately be rolled back, through the forces of persuasion or through legislation,” he said.

Brian Murphy: 202-383-6089, @MurphinDC