Residents along North Carolina's coast are fighting again to keep oil companies from drilling in nearby waters after the Trump administration recently renewed federal efforts to open the Mid-Atlantic region to oil and gas extraction.
Opposition to offshore drilling in the state's coastal communities is strong. In the last five years, more than 30 local governments along the state’s coast have passed resolutions against this method of oil and gas extraction. And last week, more than 200 coastal residents traveled on buses to the state capital to rally against renewed efforts to lease federal waters near the state’s coast to fossil fuel companies.
“The Cooper administration is very proud, proud of you because of your unwavering dedication and objections to offshore drilling,” North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan told the crowd. “So, we’re here standing shoulder to shoulder with each and every one of you, letting you know that their plan is not OK with North Carolina.”
Many coastal residents opposed to offshore drilling say it would threaten their local economies, which rely almost exclusively on tourism.
“We have a $3.4 billion industry supporting 36,000 jobs right now,” Lee Nettles, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau said at the rally. “Oil and gas threatens that. It threatens our beaches. It threatens the second largest estuary in the whole country, our first national seashore in the whole country – Cape Hatteras. It threatens our shoreline. It threatens our people. It threatens our way of life. It threatens our way of living.”
The event coincided with a public meeting, held by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, where residents could comment on the federal offshore drilling plan.
Joe Ramus serves on the board of directors for the North Carolina Coastal Federation. He traveled to the event on a bus with dozens of others from Morehead City to find out more about the federal offshore drilling draft proposal and express opposition at the rally, Ramus said. He’s already submitted an online comment against the plan, he said.
“There’s a lot of risk involved in drilling and it’s not commensurate with what might be gained economically. We have a very viable coastal, eco-tourism industry,” Ramus said. “And why put that at risk for a resource that frankly, we don’t need? There’s a glut of oil in the world.”
Those who couldn’t attend the meeting have until this Friday to submit comments through the agency’s website. Renee Orr, who leads the office of strategic management, says they’re looking for comments that relate to the environment, the economy and the state’s laws, goals and policies.
“So, we’re trying to help the public provide better informed comments that can be much more impactful to the secretary as he’s making these decisions," she said. "A statement 'I love it' or 'I hate it' is not helpful to him in making the decision about whether to include an area for a potential oil and gas lease sale.”
The fight against offshore drilling is not new to residents in Coastal North Carolina. Activists there take credit for stopping the Obama administration’s 2015 proposal to open Mid-Atlantic waters to oil and gas developers. But this struggle dates back even further. In 1988, a group called LegaSea formed in Manteo resident Michael McOwen’s living room soon after Outer Banks residents learned of Mobil’s plan to begin drilling in nearby waters.
“We were a little shocked,” he said. “I heard about it originally from a friend of mine who worked for Greenpeace. And we were in the process of trying to figure out what is going on, who are these people – no one knew anything about this – and so, the community started to come together.”
From that point forward, the group spent years educating the community about the risks of offshore drilling, gathering signatures from visitors and residents who were opposed to it and speaking to local, state and federal lawmakers, McOwen said. In 1997, Congress approved a 20-year moratorium on offshore drilling near the state’s coast through the Outer Banks Protection Act.
“That was the turning point for us when that happened,” he said. “But that was on the back of a lot of lobbying. A number of us went to congress, went to D.C. and walked the halls and talked to everybody we could talk to. It was really a full-blown effort to defeat Mobil.”
Residents today are expressing opposition at a much earlier stage – before offshore oil and gas leases have been sold. Thirty years ago, Mobil had already purchased the rights to drill before residents began to organize. And today’s resistance is much stronger and more organized than it was when LegaSea started to fight, McOwen said. That’s why he’s optimistic that North Carolina’s fight against offshore drilling will continue to succeed, he said.
“It’s amazing to see a community – and really when I say community, a whole coast – be very, very unanimously opposed to something," he said. "I’ve seen letters going from the county commissioners, already. I’ve seen the towns the engaged. I’ve seen the chambers of commerce engaged. The leadership organizations in our community are already stepping up. Back in the 1980s and 90s we had to go and really educate and beg them to do this. At this point, everybody is 100 percent.”
Since last year, Governor Cooper has taken an active stance against offshore drilling in the Mid-Atlantic. He’s written letters to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, held meetings and phone calls with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and has traveled to Washington DC to voice opposition.
State-level resistance like this helps improve the chances of thwarting the sale of oil and gas leases near the coast, said Sierra Weaver, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“The state and local governments have a very important role to play in this process, they may not necessarily have a veto,” she said. “But they are very important for raising concerns about local resources – they get to raise concerns about impacts to fisheries, impacts to the local tourism economy. They get to raise exactly the types of concerns they have been raising. And the federal government is required to consider those.”
Governor Cooper has also threatened to sue the federal government if the final oil and gas lease schedule includes the Mid-Atlantic region. The state hasn’t yet revealed its legal strategy, but there are a variety of avenues it could take, Weaver said.
“You could imagine the state taking action under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which governs the leasing process. The National Environmental Policy Act, which requires full considerations of the environmental consequences of an action. You could imagine them considering action under the Endangered Species Act because of the sensitive and vulnerable ecosystems that are at stake in North Carolina,” she said.
Even if leases are sold in the Mid-Atlantic, state and local governments can still stop oil companies from drilling by denying permits for onshore infrastructure and enforcing zoning codes, she said.
After the public comment period ends on Friday, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will begin putting together a draft environmental impact statement and a revised offshore drilling program proposal. Those are expected to come out later this year, followed by a 90-day public comment period. The bureau expects the interior department to approve the final leasing schedule by the end of 2019. If leases are sold, bureau representatives say it could take more than a decade before drilling actually begins in the Atlantic.