State Politics

Trump official discusses offshore drilling with governor, legislators in separate meetings

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke held separate discussions about offshore drilling Saturday with a group of Republican legislators and Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, who was joined by coastal elected leaders who are opposed to oil exploration.

Cooper said Zinke made no promises. The governor, along with Attorney General Josh Stein, requested an extension of the federal government’s comment period on the issue and proposed three additional public hearings near the coast — in Wilmington, Morehead City and Kill Devil Hills. Zinke was receptive to that, Cooper said, and plans a visit to coastal North Carolina.

“He said that he was listening, and he heard each and every one of us,” Cooper said. “I think generally he was pretty positive about what we said. He didn’t make any promises to us.”

Later, Zinke tweeted a photo of the meeting, writing, “Thank you to @NC_Governor Roy Cooper for taking the time for today’s meeting on the benefits and concerns of offshore energy. Appreciate the dialogue with local stakeholders too.” Then, in another tweet, he thanked legislators for meeting with him, and included a posed photo of him with Republican House Speaker Tim Moore.

Rep. Ted Davis, a Republican from Wilmington who represents Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach and Kure Beach, said he attended a meeting with Zinke that included about a dozen legislators, mostly House Republicans. Davis said he had written Zinke last week, asking him to hold a public hearing in the Wilmington area in addition to one already planned in Raleigh.

On Saturday, Davis said he told Zinke that every town and county in his district had passed resolutions against drilling. He said he was grateful that Zinke agreed to hold a hearing at the coast. “One thing he did say is this is not going to be a rushed process,” said Davis, adding that he was the only lawmaker in the meeting who expressed constituents’ concerns about drilling.

Cooper spoke with reporters after his hourlong meeting with Zinke at the Executive Mansion.

Stressing that North Carolina’s coast has special circumstances, Cooper pressed his case that there is no such thing as safe oil exploration in the stormy waters known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” He was surrounded by local leaders from coastal areas, a fisherman and a marine geologist from East Carolina University.

“We told him that North Carolina’s coast was unique,” Cooper said. “We told him that our tourism economy was over a $3 billion economy. We told him about how slow-moving water in our estuaries would face catastrophe were there to be an oil spill.”

In early January, President Donald Trump’s administration announced a five-year plan that would invite drilling in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans. Allowing oil and gas leases would reverse rules put in place by the Obama administration.

Cooper and other governors of coastal states are seeking exemptions, similar to the one that was promised to Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott, a political ally of the Trump administration. Cooper said if no exemption is granted, the state will file a lawsuit in federal court.

“North Carolina is in precisely the same position,” Cooper said. “If you’re going to exempt Florida, for those reasons, you have to exempt North Carolina.”

The same argument was presumably made by South Carolina’s Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who met with Zinke on Friday.

Earlier this week, Stein led a coalition of 12 attorneys general to write to the federal government, expressing what they believe is “a grave risk” to coastal states, Stein said.

“We have some of the best fisheries in the entire world off of our shore, and that is what drives our economy,” Stein said Saturday. “Our economy is entirely dependent on tourism and fisheries. We cannot risk having a Deepwater Horizon oil spill ruin the entire economic basis of our coastal part of the state.”

At the meeting with legislators, Zinke did most of the talking, according to Davis, reassuring them that any drilling could be done as far as 60-70 miles offshore. “He felt comfortable that we could do it, and do it right,” Davis said.

Still, Davis said he’s backing his constituents who are against drilling.

In a news release, Moore said that the state House “will maintain a collaborative approach to our state’s energy policy.”

Cooper said the local representatives who met with Zinke Saturday illustrated the bipartisan nature of the opposition in North Carolina. He encouraged North Carolinians to turn out at public hearings and write their Congressional representatives.

Several of the state’s Republican members of Congress have expressed support for drilling or exploration in the Atlantic, including Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, as well as Reps. George Holding of Raleigh, David Rouzer of Johnston County, Ted Budd of Davie County, Robert Pittenger of Charlotte, Richard Hudson of Concord and Mark Walker of Greensboro.

Cooper said the bottom line is that drilling makes no sense for the economy, given the availability of other renewable energy resources. He added that Zinke admitted that North Carolina did not have the infrastructure in place, anyway.

“We’ve been saying since this summer: no way, not off our coast,” Cooper said. “North Carolina’s coast is too important to our state.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill