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NC Gov. Cooper: No offshore oil drilling in the Atlantic Ocean

A line of off-shore oil rigs in the Santa Barbara Channel near the Federal Ecological Preserve en route to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary in March 2015. President Donald Trump on Friday, April 28, 2017, signed an executive order to consider new offshore drilling around the country.
A line of off-shore oil rigs in the Santa Barbara Channel near the Federal Ecological Preserve en route to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary in March 2015. President Donald Trump on Friday, April 28, 2017, signed an executive order to consider new offshore drilling around the country. TNS

North Carolina’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said Thursday that his administration will oppose the Trump administration’s efforts to open Atlantic Ocean waters to offshore oil and gas drilling. Cooper’s decision reverses the state’s policy under former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who urged federal officials to promote energy exploration in ocean waters to help the nation achieve energy independence.

Making his announcement from Fort Macon State Park in coastal Carteret County, Cooper said the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality will submit anti-drilling arguments to the U.S. Department of Commerce on Friday. Cooper said offshore energy exploration poses risks of oil spills to local ecosystems, tourist economies and the commercial fishing industry, but added that North Carolina workers and ports would see few benefits from drilling in federal ocean waters miles offshore.

“I can sum it up in four words: Not off our coast,” Cooper said. “It is simply not worth the risk.”

President Barack Obama had declared Atlantic and Arctic waters off-limits for future offshore energy drilling, but in April President Donald Trump issued an executive order to resume federal reviews for offshore drilling prospects.

The position of a governor is given greater deference than ordinary public comments, because state support is one of eight factors weighed by the Department of Interior in deciding whether to allow offshore energy exploration. Other factors include interest from energy companies, environmental sensitivity and the location of the drill pads in relation to the nation’s energy markets.

South Carolina’s Republican governor, Henry McMaster, has repeatedly expressed opposition to offshore drilling. Virginia’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, has expressed support for offshore drilling, as long as his state receives a share of the royalties generated from drilling activity.

More than 30 coastal communities in North Carolina have passed resolutions opposing offshore drilling, Cooper noted. Two counties – Carteret and Brunswick – passed resolutions in 2015 in favor of offshore energy exploration when the Obama administration was reviewing the issue.

Reaction to the governor’s announcement was mixed in Atlantic Beach.

“People are happy about it,” said Lindsey Brown, 18, who just graduated from West Carteret High School and is working at the Atlantic Beach Surf Shop this summer. Brown said her friends had signs in their yards opposing offshore drilling.

But Patricia and Buddy Davis of Atlantic Beach’s Davis Beachwear are disappointed by the announcement.

“It would create a lot of jobs,” Buddy Davis said. “Eastern North Carolina is a rural area, and the biggest problem (here) is jobs. ... We have lots of people come down from up north and say they want to move down here, but they can’t find decent jobs.”

The unemployment rate in Carteret County was 4.2 percent in May. In North Carolina, the jobless rate was 4.5 percent in May and 4.3 percent for the U.S.

The Davises see the possibility of an oil spill as the only drawback to drilling.

“If there’s oil there, it’s going to help our economy and our nation,” Patricia Davis said. “Our beaches are some of the most beautiful in the world. … It’s a tough decision.”

Kure Beach Mayor Emilie Swearingen, who attended Cooper’s announcement, said drilling would turn coastal towns and resort areas into industrial zones. Kure Beach, home to the Civil War-era Fort Fisher and a state aquarium, has 2,200 year-round residents and hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.

“You’re going to turn the Outer Banks into a huge industrial complex?” Swearingen said. “The main thing is, you will have an oil spill, that’s all there is to it.”

Offshore drilling on the East Coast and West Coast has been been banned in this country for decades out of environmental concern, and opening up ocean waters to energy exploration would take years. High-profile accidents, like the Exxon Valdez in 1989 and Deepwater Horizon in 2010, continue to keep the risk in the public eye, but supporters point to the economic benefits of bringing a major industry to economically strained communities.

David McGowan, executive director of the N.C. Petroleum Council, denounced Cooper’s stance as based on politics rather than science. He said the state is passing up a major economic opportunity.

“It is disappointing that Governor Cooper is appealing to groups who are opposing important scientific research,” McGowan said in a statement. “He is making this decision before the necessary research can be conducted to better understand our offshore resource potential.”

Friday is the deadline for public comments on allowing seismic testing, a form of preliminary surveying for potential energy reserves using airguns, a process that environmental advocates say causes harm to whales and other sea life. The National Marine Fisheries Service, within the Department of Commerce, will decide whether or not to allow the testing to go forward. But energy companies will also need a separate permit for seismic testing from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management within the Department of Interior.

Separately, a public comment period on issuing federal leases to allow drilling closes Aug. 17.

The Interior Department said that the seismic surveys are needed to identify potential energy resources in the Outer Continental Shelf, which hasn’t been assessed for energy potential in more than three decades.

Cooper noted that the BP oil spill caused by the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico cost more than $60 billion in cleanup and economic recovery. Cooper also said that the nation is awash in cheap natural gas, while renewables like solar power are undergoing rapid advancement.

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski

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