RALEIGH, N.C. — Hundreds of environmentalists opposed to the Trump administration proposal to expand offshore drilling in the Atlantic and other ocean waters converged Monday to press their case at the federal government’s only public meeting for input in North Carolina.
A smaller group of oil and natural gas boosters also gathered at a Raleigh hotel holding one of the nearly two dozen “open houses” put on by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management nationwide. The open houses are to allow the public to speak directly with bureau staff and receive information on the five-year leasing program under proposal.
The Trump proposal would vastly expand offshore oil drilling from the Atlantic to the Arctic and Pacific oceans, including in areas off more than a dozen states where drilling is presently blocked. If approved, it would open 90 percent of the nation’s offshore reserves to development by private companies between 2019 and 2024.
Individuals and groups could file written comments on laptops at Monday’s meeting, but the format didn’t allow people to speak into a microphone as at a public hearing.
Several environmental groups scheduled a “Don’t Drill NC” rally at the same hotel, buttressed by speakers and scores of coastal officials, business leaders and other citizens bused in from the Outer Banks, Morehead City and elsewhere. Several said the risk of any damaging oil spill to the coastline is too great when the state generates $3.8 billion in revenues and more than 50,000 jobs combined by the tourism and fishing industries. They also charged that the state’s fragile barrier islands and marine estuaries would be too vulnerable to any spilled oil.
“It’s going to stay there for generations. The stuff is not going to go away,” said Mark Hooper, a Carteret County commercial fisherman and rally speaker. “We have to have some sacred ground somewhere, and I would contend for a lot of people it’s walking on that beach, looking at that ocean.”
The opponents’ top ally is Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. He has threatened litigation unless North Carolina is left out similar to the exemption the Republican presidential administration appears to have offered to GOP Florida Gov. Rick Scott. North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan, a Cooper appointee, also spoke to a raucous rally crowd, urging them to remain vigilant in their opposition. Regan said four companies are “lined up” to ask permission to drill off the coastline.
Top state Republicans, including former Gov. Pat McCrory, generally have supported offshore expansion as part of an all-of-the-above energy strategy they say would create more jobs and state tax revenues.
Conservative activists and representatives of the energy industry held their own news conference at the hotel to urge expansion. They said offshore energy exploration off the North Carolina coast would give a long-term boost to eastern North Carolina and help make the state energy independent. It also could generate more than 50,000 jobs over time, according to data provided by the American Petroleum Institute.
“Gov. Cooper and other outspoken opponents of offshore energy development have said ‘not off our coast’ or essentially ‘not in my backyard,'” David McGowan with the North Carolina Petroleum Council said. “This is not a productive, responsible state energy strategy.” Some news conference speakers downplayed the threat for environmental damage. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 1989 Exxon Valdez spills still loom large in the narrative of anti-drilling opponents.
“The safety record of oil and gas in the United States has been superb,” said drilling supporter Matthew Horsley of Pinehurst, a retired army colonel.
But Robert Woodard, the Republican chairman of the Dare County commission, spoke at the opponents’ rally, unhappy that the federal government didn’t set additional public hearings on the Outer Banks and in other coastal communities.
“We have nothing to gain and everything to lose,” Woodard told the crowd. “Why in the world would we want to destroy the pristine blue waters off our coast?”
The public meetings for this draft leasing program wrap up March 8. After that, the bureau could narrow the areas for leasing and publish another proposal, leading to more time for public comment. A final proposal would be subject to review. The Interior Department wants the program finalized by the end of 2019, according to the bureau’s website.