Feds remove Atlantic Coast from offshore drilling program

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Atlantic sunrise at Carolina Beach
Atlantic sunrise at Carolina Beach. File photo.

The United States Department of the Interior (DOI) announced Tuesday that drilling off the eastern seaboard is no longer part of their five-year oil and gas leasing program, which would have sold land off the coast of North Carolina and other Atlantic states for seismic testing and offshore drilling.

“We heard from many corners that now is not the time to offer oil and gas leasing off the Atlantic coast,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

Jewell and Abigail Hopper, the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), told reporters that public input played a big role in what is seen by many as a 180-degree reversal by President Obama’s administration. In January 2015, the federal government released the draft proposal for the five-year program, which included offshore areas from Virginia to the Georgia – Florida border. Now, those areas (called the Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic areas by the departments) have been removed from the program, which is slated to start in 2017.

“This is not a big reversal. This is exactly how the process is supposed to work,” said Jewell. “It’s a robust public process.”

BOEM held 23 meetings in coastal areas that would’ve been affected by the plan, including one in Wilmington that drew hundreds, and over a million public comments were received by BOEM and the DOI in the last year. Those concerned about drilling off the Atlantic ranged from the Department of Defense (due to the United States Navy’s large presence in southeastern Virginia) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (which has a flight facility on Virginia’s Chincoteague Island) to environmental groups and beach towns.

“When you factor in conflicts with national defense, economic activities such as fishing and tourism, and opposition from many local communities, it simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with any lease sales in the coming five years,” Jewell said.

Kevin Piacenza, the offshore drilling campaign coordinator for the all-volunteer Cape Fear chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, said that over 30 towns in municipalities in North Carolina alone signed resolutions in opposition to the program, which was supported by Gov. Pat McCrory. Those included the city of Wilmington and the three beach towns in New Hanover County.

“Our position is that our existing coastal economy is thriving,” Piacenza said, noting that North Carolina was the sixth most visited state in the U.S. in 2015. “They’re coming to go to the beach. The mountains are a big draw too, but they’re primarily coming to the coast.”

Piacenza, who was planning to host a meeting on the next step in the fight against the offshore activity Thursday evening at the New Hanover County Main Library downtown, said the meeting is still on but there’s a change in the agenda.

“We are beyond elated,” Piacenza said.