WILMINGTON — The past few months have seen a contentious debate resurface along the shores of the North Carolina coast, as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) considers opening the Atlantic coast to offshore oil drilling and natural gas exploration.
Monday in New Hanover County, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality hosted the first of three public hearings scheduled this week for coastal North Carolina.
According to the DEQ, these hearings seek to gather public input and information on the potential impact of oil and gas exploration, and development on the biological, social, economic and aesthetic values of North Carolina’s coast.
The hearings come after President Trump announced his “America First Offshore Energy Strategy” in April, an executive order removing many Obama-era regulations that were designed to protect the Atlantic Coast from offshore drilling.
Although this is solely for the 2019-2024 period, this decision is expected to have long-lasting effects on the east coast.
The meeting brought out heated arguments from both sides, with points made in support of and against the idea of oil exploration. There were passionate pleas for the environment, with attendees reciting poetry, and even being moved to tears during their speeches.
Bridget Munger, with the Energy, Mineral, and Land Resources Division of the NCDEQ, said that meetings like these are critical to the process for determining the best move going forward.
Topics ranged from environmental conservation and the protection of area beaches for future generations, to the logistical and economic issues that would ultimately be brought on by the introduction of this plan into our corner of the Atlantic Ocean.
The effects on marine life
One of the most contentious issues discussed was that of seismic testing, which is necessary before any sort of drilling can begin. Currently, five companies have filed for permits with the federal register to begin the testing if the plan is passed.
The problem with these tests, according to the opposition, is the damage they can do to marine life. These tests involve the use of high-powered air guns that blast air down toward the seafloor, 24 hours a day, every 10 minutes.
Using specialized sonar equipment, the boat on the surface is able to measure the density of the seafloor, which can show where oil and gas deposits might be found. The area targeted for seismic testing extends from Delaware, to Cape Canaveral, Fla., extending out 350 nautical miles into the sea.
For marine mammals and other marine life in the ocean, this can be problematic. Although the scientific community disagrees on the topic, many marine mammals use sound waves to communicate, and are extremely sensitive to powerful sounds like these.
In the past, naval sonar blasts, as well as seismic testing, have been blamed for whale and dolphin strandings in the United States.
However, some disagree.
David McGowan, Executive Director for the North Carolina Petroleum Council, points to a statement from the Chief Environmental Officer for BOEM, that says:
“To date, there has been no documented scientific evidence of noise from air guns used in geological and geophysical (G&G) seismic activities adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities.
This technology has been used for more than 30 years around the world. It is still used in U.S. waters off of the Gulf of Mexico with no known detrimental impact to marine animal populations or to commercial fishing.”
According to McGowan, the last time tests were conducted was between 1966 and 1988, meaning the data, and the technology used to collect it is antiquated. He said these kinds of disagreements underline the need for more public comment, as well as more scientific study.
The effects on the tourism economy
Another consideration is the impact on the state economy, specifically the coast. Tourism and the ocean economy are the biggest industries for coastal North Carolina, bringing in an annual GDP of approximately $2.1 billion.
According to McGowan, a 2013 study conducted by the state indicated that offshore oil could potentially generate upwards of 55,000 jobs, and generate $4 billion dollars per year in the state.
However, several industry veterans opposed to offshore drilling said this is not the case. They said that drillers and operators from places like Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico are often brought in to head new operations, limiting the number of jobs that would be available to North Carolinians.
Potential environmental affects
There’s an environmental issue involved as well, as the infrastructure necessary for the petroleum industry to thrive is extensive. Pipelines must be laid on the ocean floor to transport oil from offshore to ports along the coast and to storage.
In the water off North Carolina, the seafloor is soft, meaning pipe would have to be buried. Since the area’s inlets often need dredging to stay open for boat access, these pipelines would more than likely need to go over land, passing through undeveloped areas to get to port.
Some asked how the government would determine where these pipes would come ashore. Much of the undeveloped territory along North Carolina coast are nature preserves and state parks, meaning the development of the oil industry could potentially harm some of the few remaining pristine areas of coastline in the state.
Other environmental issues will need to be explored as well, including the potential for oil spills like that at Deepwater Horizon in 2010, or the Exxon Valdez in 1989. Such spills can devastate the environment for years, and damage economies based around the ocean.
Although the debate on this subject will likely continue far into the coming years, the public comment period for this plan ends of Aug. 15. Meetings are scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 9, in Morehead City, and Thursday Aug. 10, in Manteo.
These meetings will give residents a chance to voice their opinions to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. If you are unable to attend, but would still like to comment, written comments can be sent to Timothy Webster with the NCDEQ at 217 West Jones St., 1601 Mail Center Drive, Raleigh, N.C., 27699, or by email to email@example.com.
For information on the BOEM 5-year-program, visit The Bureau of Ocean Energy Managements website at boem.gov. Upon finalization, the plan will replace the current 2017-2022 plan, which was passed in January of this year.