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The next hot spot for drilling could be the N.C. coast

N.C. is central to MMS's proposed five-year leasing plan



Editor's Note: It's Day 71 of the Deepwater Horizon spill, and each day I read the newspaper accounts and updates on the disaster. But I no longer watch the underwater oilcam that captures the slow death of the ocean. I turn my head when rescuers cradle another viscous bird from the slick.

I've refocused my outrage toward this country's lack of a legitimate, coherent national energy policy. Well, I guess we do have one: Former Vice President Dick Cheney crafted the Big Oil version in 2001 during top-secret meetings with his Energy Task Force. That task force, whose records remain secret, was stacked with top executives from the oil industry—including the CEO of BP. The 170-page "policy" reads like it was written by special interests, because it was.

If anything positive can come from BP's Deepwater Horizon spill, perhaps it will be a rethinking of our energy habits. Given the short-term and long-range environmental impacts of fossil fuels, at some point we'll have to wean ourselves from oil. We'll have to kick coal. Nukes aren't the answer; there's no place to responsibly dispose of the waste.

So what are our options?

In our summer long series on energy, the Indy will examine the political, economic and environmental impacts—and tradeoffs—of renewable energy, including solar, wind and biomass.

Conservation is essential to a federal or state energy policy. We'll analyze and evaluate existing conservation programs. If they're not working, why?

Green jobs were supposed to help resuscitate our economy. Has the promise of a green economy been fulfilled?

We can blame BP for the oil on our beaches. We can blame Obama. We can blame Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Nukes and Big Gas for the world's environmental woes. But we need to blame ourselves. The energy industry is our dealer, but we're the ones with the habit. —Lisa Sorg

There is a place in the sea 45 miles northeast of Cape Hatteras brimming with so much life that at depths beyond the sunlight's reach the water is illuminated by colorful ocean creatures and fish.

Known as the Point, it is one of the most valuable and biodiverse areas of the Atlantic. Here, the cold northern Labrador Current meets the warm southern Gulf Stream and the mingling creates a parfait of marine life: swordfish, sharks, endangered sea turtles and large, iconic sea mammals such as dolphins and whales. Rare sea birds dive in the water for food.

The Point is also valuable because of what has died there. Over millions of years, plants and sea creatures perished. They were buried beneath layers of sediment and rock, which acted like a pressure cooker and eventually created deposits of oil and gas.

North Carolina's coastline—the second largest on the Eastern Seaboard—contributes to the state's economic and environmental wealth. But its trove of resources, including potential oil and gas deposits located offshore, also leave North Carolina vulnerable.

"The threat is greatest here because people think we have the greatest resources," Elizabeth Ouzts, state director of Environment North Carolina, said.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar targeted the mid-Atlantic's Outer Continental Shelf for potential oil and gas exploration. This portion of the shelf includes 64 million acres within North Carolina's administrative boundaries. If the Minerals Management Service (MMS) proceeds with its five-year leasing plan, then there could be offshore drilling in these waters for the first time in North Carolina history.

Even if North Carolina opposes offshore drilling, the state bears more risk than it has power. Virginia and South Carolina are aggressively pursuing oil and gas exploration off their coasts. Until recently, MMS was offering a block for lease 50 miles off the Virginia coast—and just 55 miles from North Carolina.

With limited authority over federal approval of exploration or drilling, what can North Carolina do? It could appeal to Obama, the Department of the Interior and MMS (now renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation as part of the agency's drastic overhaul) to take its leasing plans for the mid-Atlantic off the table. It could lobby the congressional delegation for legislation that would strenuously regulate and monitor the oil and gas industry instead of kowtowing to it.

"We need more of our leaders to use the bully pulpit about drilling," Ouzts said.

In state government, a bill is sailing through the Legislature that would lift the cap on damages paid to the state from spills, leaks and other accidents as a result of offshore energy exploration. And state environmental agencies are crafting rules that would further protect the coast and set the scene for the state to generate wind energy offshore.

Clean energy is key. North Carolina can't prevent a spill, but it can craft a state energy policy that reduces our dependency on oil and other fossil fuels.

If you were relaxing along Wrightsville, Carolina or Kure beaches last week, you may have seen people armed with bottles and buckets collecting ocean water, fish and sand. Funded by the N.C. Sea Grant, these researchers from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington were studying the beach to capture a "before" picture of its health. It's as if doctors were photographing a pair of pink lungs before a person began smoking cigarettes. The "after" picture won't be as pretty.

It's unlikely slicks of oil from the BP disaster will reach North Carolina beaches, but it is possible that tarballs will, as well as contaminated or dying birds and sea animals.

It's also highly possible that future exploration in the mid-Atlantic could result in a spill or major accident. And if it does, thanks to researchers, at least we'll know what we've lost.

Ancient deep-sea coral reefs, coastal marshes, sensitive habitats, endangered and threatened species, sea life and birds: They would be the environmental casualties. And depending on the magnitude of the spill, it could take years before the beach's ecosystem fully healed.

Steve Ross is a research associate professor at the Center for Marine Science at UNC-Wilmington. He told a legislative advisory subcommittee last year that "offshore energy exploration could irreparably damage these sensitive habitats."

"We're finding a lot of species new to science in these reefs," Ross told the Indy, adding that the damage to the sensitive ancient reefs is unknown because there is little data showing their vulnerability to oil.

Yet these environmentally fragile areas in the mid- and south Atlantic, including parts of the reefs that extend from North Carolina to northern Florida, are targeted for drilling according to the MMS 2012–2017 proposed leasing plan.

North Carolina is central, both geographically and strategically, to that plan. Eighty percent of the mid-Atlantic lies within the state's administrative boundaries. (The area is in federal waters, but within North Carolina's borders if the imaginary lines extended 200 miles to sea.)

"North Carolina shouldn't assume [an accident] couldn't happen here," says Doug Rader. The chief oceans scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, he served as the co-chair of the N.C. Legislative Advisory Subcommittee on Offshore Energy Exploration. Just a week before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the subcommittee issued a 100-plus-page report evaluating the potential impacts of drilling in federal waters off the North Carolina coast.

"The big irony was the timing of our report," Rader said. "What became outdated was reassurance from the industry and federal agencies that drilling was safe. There was a seemingly very low probability of a big accident weighed against the investment that would be required to prepare for the big accident. That calculation led people to underinvest in the gulf. We have to reduce the level of acceptable risk."

The state has huge investments in the coast. Commercial and recreational fishing is valued at more than $3 billion. The tourism industry is worth $3 billion to $5 billion in state and tax revenues and about 50,000 jobs.

Not only would the state bear much of the risk of offshore oil and gas drilling, it would receive little, if any, of the reward.

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