State Politics

McCrory criticizes 50-mile offshore drilling buffer

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory Raleigh

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory is bashing the federal proposal to include a 50-mile buffer between the coastline and drilling for oil and gas in the Atlantic Ocean, telling a U.S. House subcommittee Wednesday that the plan would restrict development for no reason.

The Republican governor told the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources that Atlantic drilling is good for North Carolina jobs, and that there is “widespread support” in the state. He said North Carolina will back drilling, though, only if the state receives a share of the money from offshore energy production, raising the stakes for proposals in Congress to give states a share of the federal leasing fees and royalties.

President Barack Obama moved this year to open the waters off North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia to drilling, over the objections of environmental groups and many who live in Atlantic coastal towns. The Interior Department plans to hold an Atlantic lease sale in 2021.

In order to protect fishing, tourism and other coastal activities, the Interior Department said it would forbid drilling within 50 miles of the shore.

McCrory told the House panel, which was conducting an oversight hearing of Obama’s offshore drilling plan, that the buffer is a bad idea.

“That 50-mile buffer right now unnecessarily puts much of North Carolina’s most accessible and undiscovered resources, frankly, under lock and key,” McCrory said.

The last seismic surveys of the mid-Atlantic’s oil and gas resources were three decades ago, and those explorations used outdated technology. But McCrory said the surveys indicated the proposed buffer might put up to 40 percent of North Carolina’s offshore oil and natural gas off limits.

McCrory said that includes the area known as the Manteo Prospect, a target about 40 miles off the coast of North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras with drilling promise.

McCrory blamed Virginia for the 50-mile buffer in the federal plan, saying it was based on state-specific environmental concerns by Virginia officials.

McCory said further environmental analysis and the results of upcoming seismic testing for oil and gas should determine the size of any buffer zone off North Carolina. He said offshore drilling can happen with little impact on coastal activities and the ocean environment.

Rep. Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat, objected to McCrory’s proposal to reduce the buffer.

“We know that oil spills don’t respect offshore state boundaries. We’ve got the Gulf Stream, so we know Virginia would bear the risk for North Carolina,” he said.

McCrory, in documents he provided to the subcommittee, argued that “a reduced buffer would keep North Carolina’s coastal and ocean activities undisturbed, maintain the view from our 320 miles of ocean beaches and shoreline, protect marine life and preserve the availability of potential resources.”

The Interior Department said the 50-mile buffer is meant to “minimize multiple use conflicts, such as those from Department of Defense and NASA activities, renewable energy activities, commercial and recreational fishing, critical habitat needs for wildlife and other environmental concerns.”

Emilie Swearingen, a town commissioner from the coastal community of Kure Beach disagreed with her state’s governor, telling the House energy subcommittee Wednesday that a spill would devastate the fishing and tourism economy along the coast.

Swearingen said that even if there weren’t a spill, offshore drilling would lead to industrialization of the coastline, with storage yards, refineries and other infrastructure that threatened the area’s allure for tourism.

“Please listen to the people in this country who are begging you to protect their quality of life,” Swearingen told the lawmakers.

Offshore oil and gas development is contentious in Kure Beach, where hundreds of people protested the mayor’s decision to support seismic testing for offshore energy.

The Southern Environmental Law Center also criticized McCrory’s testimony, saying in a statement that he is “speaking for the oil industry,” not the people on North Carolina’s coast who have opposed drilling.

Rep. Richard Hudson, a Republican from Concord, spoke in favor of Atlantic drilling at the energy subcommittee hearing, saying he sees “thousands of jobs” on the horizon. But Rep. Alan Lowenthal, a California Democrat, said, “All it is going to take is one instance of human error to unleash a catastrophic oil spill along the East Coast.”

McCrory, while enthusiastically endorsing offshore drilling, told the lawmakers that North Carolina will need money for infrastructure demands, public services and environmental protections.

“It is incumbent upon me to take the costs and benefits into account when considering whether to support offshore activity in North Carolina,” McCory said in his testimony. “Considering these facts, North Carolina will not support offshore energy development without revenue sharing.”

McCrory and six other East Coast governors are pressing Congress for a share of the federal leasing fees for Atlantic drilling, similar to what four states along the Gulf of Mexico receive.