When it comes to offshore oil drilling, NC can’t have it all

Economic arguments will be central in the fight against offshore oil drilling along the Southeastern states. The politics in North Carolina, heavily weighted toward corporate interests, favor energy development.

The existence or importance of climate change is questioned by many, especially those who like to drive big SUVs to the beach on weekends. About the only argument I can see holding any water will come from those well-heeled individuals who own coastal real estate or who wish to develop coastal areas for others to enjoy.

The economics of NIMBY may prevail if these land owners worry about the risk of oil derricks silhouetted by the morning sunrise or an oil-soaked beach in their front yard. If they take the long view, these landowners will connect the use of fossil fuels to sea-level rise, also threatening their coastal land holdings.

Lessons from the Deep-Water Horizon or Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are instructive. Phytoplankton biomass in Gulf waters was 85 percent lower after the oil spill. Some of the reduction might have been caused by the massive use of oil dispersants on the 5 million barrels of oil that flowed from the seabed. Lower phytoplankton biomass translates directly into lower fish and shellfish populations, which feed on phytoplankton.

The catch of fish after the oil spill was also lower due to the reduced effort of fishermen, so we may never know the direct effect of the oil itself. Overall effects on the catch of fish and shellfish in the Gulf of Mexico are estimated at $2.5 billion for the three years after the spill. It is clear that a similar spill off the coast of North Carolina would affect the commercial and sport-fishing industry enjoyed by so many.

As is the case in most oil spills, oil washed onto beaches and marshes along the Gulf Coast, coating a variety of birds that eventually died. Dead birds are drama. Oil on the beaches had a huge effect on the tourist industry along the Gulf of Mexico, which has taken years to recover. Estimated losses are as large as $23 billion.

We can expect similar losses should a catastrophic oil spill occur off the Outer Banks. When German U-boats sank oil tankers along the North Carolina coast in World War II, oil persisted on the beaches for decades.

Much of the anticipated profit from offshore oil discoveries in North Carolina would flow to oil companies headquartered in other states. It is certainly not clear whether the local jobs created would pump more money into the coastal economy than what might be lost in the fisheries, recreation and tourist industries – even without a catastrophe. We should ferret out the influence of out-of-state corporate money when our elected officials consider offshore drilling. In fact, an energy policy committee of the General Assembly recently heard an update on drilling possibilities.

Some believe that accidents never happen and that we can have it all. But we all know that accidents will happen. Those who know the value of renewable natural resources will be more thoughtful.

William H. Schlesinger is dean (emeritus) of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.