Decisions on oil, gas leases off NC coast are nearing

Groups in favor of drilling call for seismic testing; opponents concerned

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
A view looking south of the Atlantic Ocean and the beach near Corolla. (Eamon Queeney - North State Journal)

KINSTON — The clock is winding down with less than a day remaining for North Carolina to make its voice known on the restarting process for offshoring drilling on the crystal coast.

President Donald Trump has instituted an “America-first offshore energy strategy” that welcomes drilling in the Atlantic Ocean and reverses President Barack Obama’s initiatives against it.

Under the current five-year National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, Obama put restrictions in place from 2017-2022 that no oil and gas leases would be available in the Atlantic Ocean. On Trump’s quest to overturn Obama’s decision, in April he ordered a new five-year program offering individual leases in the Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic. Trump’s new program would go into effect in 2019.

The federal government controls gas and oil leasing in the Atlantic Ocean; three nautical miles from the North Carolina shore. This has drilling backers and their opponents battling in a war on words for what is best for the North Carolina coast.

“We believe North Carolina has not only a duty from a national security perspective, but an economic perspective to at least understand better what our resources are,” said David McGowan, executive director of the North Carolina Petroleum Council. “The first step in doing that is the seismic survey to understand what we have offshore, how much, and then we can all have a really informed discussion and decision on how to develop that resource.

“North Carolina has an opportunity to produce oil and natural gas, to increase economic development, and to a provide a resource that people use every day.”

Seismic testing is essentially an ultrasound of the ocean floor. McGowan noted the last national seismic survey data from the Atlantic dates back 30 years and an updated survey is needed to analyze what lies beneath and to weigh the pros and cons of potential drilling.

“The conversation about drilling is premature,” he said. “This should be a conversation about surveying and seismic testing to better understand what those resources are.”

Seismic testing is funded entirely by private investors, and federal law requires any data recovered to be shared to the federal government.

Gov. Roy Cooper has adamantly opposed offshore drilling and seismic testing, announcing this summer that he would not support such activities off the coast of North Carolina.

State government officials held a series of public hearings to allow residents to speak on the issue at hand. Last week, citizens representing both sides of the spectrum spoke before the N.C. Division of Environmental Quality at hearings held in Wilmington, Morehead City and Manteo.

“We are asking the Trump Administration to not move forward with offshore oil exploration or seismic testing,” said Randy Sturgill, southeast regional organizer for Oceana, which is located in Southport. “Everything changed Nov. 8 with a new administration and their willingness to drill anywhere and everywhere. They basically hit the reset button on the five-year plan.”

Oceana, the largest international ocean conservation organization, is encouraging all governors, elected officials and constituents to make their voices heard on the issue.

“This is a forever decision,” said Sturgill. “If we make the wrong decision now, we will deal with the choice of our decision forever. Once oil rigs set up shop, they don’t let go.”

Sturgill noted that seismic testing can affect the hearing of whales and dolphins.

“Research has shown the sound of a seismic testing blast can be heard 2,500 miles,” said Sturgill. “A deaf whale is a dead whale as they rely so much on their hearing for everyday interactions. It is totally unacceptable to put this type of equipment in the water where studies have said there will not be that much oil and gas there.”

Sturgill also notes that disruptions in fishing grounds, moving schools of fish away, and reductions in catch rates would also be affected if seismic testing and offshore drilling should occur.

Public Policy Polling, in a report for the Natural Resources Defense Council, found that 51 percent of North Carolina residents were “very concerned” and 19 percent were “somewhat concerned” about the federal government’s plan to begin offshore drilling off the North Carolina coast.

The deadlines for the states to submit comments to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is Aug. 17. The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality will accept public comments through Aug. 15.