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Have The Tides Turned Against Offshore Drilling?

August 11, 2017

Low oil prices and local resistance have stalled plans to drill off the southeastern coast, for now.

The issue of offshore drilling is one that often defies partisan loyaltiesLast month, in one of the North Carolina's most popular beach towns, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced his opposition to offshore drilling.

"It's clear that opening North Carolina's coast to oil and gas exploration and drilling would bring unacceptable risks to our economy, our environment and our coastal communities – and for little potential gain," Cooper said from Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. "As governor, I'm here to speak out and take action against it. I can sum it up in four words: not off our coast."

When oil drilling off the southeast coast was proposed by President Barack Obama in 2015, Cooper's press conference may have stood apart from the bipartisan consensus that supported the idea.

But now, two years later, the Democratic governor's stance is less noteworthy. More than 125 municipalities along the coast have formally opposed drilling or seismic testing, and just one coastal governor in the Southeast still supports it.

What changed? Not local opinion, says Sierra Weaver, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

"The local communities have always been against offshore drilling, it's really a matter of them getting educated about what's at stake," Weaver says. "What has shifted is interest at the state level or the political level."

The issue of offshore drilling is one that often defies partisan loyalties. President George H. W. Bush instituted a moratorium on drilling off the southeastern coast, which President Bill Clinton extended, but President George W. Bush ended.

After the BP oil spill in 2010 derailed Obama's first attempt to open the East Coast to oil rigs, he tried again in 2015. Attention to the spill had subsided, the president's approval rating was on the rise, and every affected governor backed the plan, as did senators of both parties and many statehouses. The idea had momentum.

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But coastal communities bucked. A grassroots movement born in Kure Beach, North Carolina pushed back against the town's mayor, then-Gov. Pat McCrory, and other political supporters. More than a million public comments were submitted about the proposal, many citing the environmental and economic harm that oil drilling and exploration would cause.

"It baffled me why the previous administration could be so adamantly against the Keystone pipeline and then wanted to go offshore and drill," says Jeff Oden, a commercial fisherman in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

For fishermen such as Oden, who face strict environmental regulations every time they go out, the drilling campaign is hypocritical.

"We’re regulated to the hilt and we’re just asking for a fair shake. We’re just looking to get the job done," Oden says. "You’re gonna have oil companies coming in that don’t need it and you’re gonna take a livelihood."

Critics of offshore drilling say the practice could decimate coastal fisheries, a $95 million business in North Carolina. Seismic surveys – in which ships blast underwater airguns to detect oil and gas deposits – are particularly disruptive, especially to marine mammals like whales and dolphins.

Oden, who also owns a motel in Cape Hatteras, says the potential threat to tourism is another reason for his opposition.

"It’s incredible what could happen, and to turn a blind eye and forget the Gulf oil spill is unbelievable," he says. "The bottom line is there's way more to lose than there is to gain in this venture."

In the end, scientists, fishermen and small business owners – three groups that don't always see eye-to-eye – were among those who opposed the drilling proposal. The campaign worked: The Obama administration removed southeast Atlantic coast drilling from its five-year plan last year.

But the fight is not over. In April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at reviewing Obama's five-year plan and making millions of ocean acres eligible for oil and gas leasing. This time around, the political tides may have shifted.

In South Carolina, like in North Carolina, the new governor opposes offshore drilling. And after a visible anti-drilling campaign in 2015 and the collapse of another high-profile energy project – two new nuclear plants – South Carolinians may be skeptical of a new drilling push.

"That ship has pretty much sailed and I think the only thing that would change anyone's mind on this issue would be higher gas prices," says Tyler Jones, a longtime political consultant in South Carolina. "There's not a whole lot of oil off our coast and so the juice isn't worth the squeeze, so to speak."

Low gas prices in South Carolina likely contribute to the ebb in offshore drilling support, Jones says. Indeed, gas prices across the country are among the lowest in the decade, and South Carolina has the nation's cheapest gas.

The state's dependence on tourism and Charleston's political pull also blur the partisan battle lines, says Matt Moore, a former South Carolina Republican Party chair.

"The Republican Party base extends a lot of grace on this issue – black and white lines have not been drawn," Moore says. "The closer a person lives to the coast, the less likely they are to support offshore drilling. It's a classic 'Not In My Backyard' issue which makes it an extremely narrow line to walk as a politician."

In Virginia, public opinion may be shifting as well. Though Gov. Terry McAuliffe supports offshore drilling, in the past year, Sen. Tim Kaine has reconsidered his support for it, 

and Lieutenant Gov. Ralph Northam, the Democratic nominee in this year's gubernatorial election, is a vocal opponent. The state's two largest cities, Norfolk and Virginia Beach, have voted to formally oppose offshore drilling and the Department of Defense, which operates the world's largest naval base in that region, has also voiced concerns about offshore drilling, citing potential disruptions to military exercises.

Proponents of offshore drilling say the practice is not as destructive as it's often portrayed.

“What you see along the coast is a lot of exaggeration of what this could mean in terms of impact on tourism fisheries and the coastline," says Erik Milito, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute. "We know from around the world this is certainly compatible with military exercises, with tourism, with fishing and with coastal economies in general."

Much of the recent anti-drilling sentiment is political, and often magnified by media coverage of activists and other drilling opponents, he says.

“Because we’re going through the process again we’re seeing an uptick in the amount of noise coming from the activist community," Milito says. "There are supporters in the coastal states that just aren’t as loud as a lot of the opposition when it comes to discussing this issue.”

Because of a "drumbeat of fear" that’s pushed into the debate, voters and politicians often lose sight of the long-term goals, he says.

“If we move 10 to 20 years down the road and we start seeing declines in the Gulf of Mexico what are we gonna replace that with?”

Trump officials have acknowledged that the plan to open the southern Atlantic to drilling will take years, and the Obama administration's five-year plan will remain in effect during that time. But the conflict will likely come to a head eventually.

"Trump's administration has said he intends to make the U.S. energy dominant. These communities have said they don't want drilling. So there's gonna be a fight," Weaver, the environmental lawyer, says.

Whether that fight will be enough to kill the proposal a second time remains to be seen.

"It doesn't seem like a death knell given the divided opinion among Republican officials," says Moore, the former GOP chairman. "When it comes to American energy independence the country is in a much different place than it was even 5 years ago, so there's not a pressing need, but external events have a way of changing things."

Source: US News

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