Climate

The Fight Against Offshore Drilling That’s Unifying Towns Along The East Coast

CREDIT: Katie Valentine

KURE BEACH, NORTH CAROLINA – Emilie Swearingen has only been the mayor of Kure Beach for a few months. But she’s already helped her town make history.

In January, Kure Beach, a tiny coastal Carolina community of brightly-colored beach houses that’s home to about 2,000 year-round residents, became the 100th town on the East Coast to pass a resolution against offshore drilling and seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean.

For Swearingen, whose campaign for mayor was centered around her opposition to oil and gas development off the coast, the city council’s unanimous vote was a victory for the town and its people, who are worried about the impacts a major spill could have on their homes and businesses.

“Our economy is tourism. That is the only industry on Kure Beach,” Swearingen said. “We can’t afford to put that in jeopardy.”

Emilie Swearingen at Kure Beach's January town hall meeting.

Emilie Swearingen at Kure Beach’s January town hall meeting.

CREDIT: Katie Valentine

While Kure Beach’s vote adds to the growing dissent of coastal towns across the Southeast, it only goes so far. Swearingen can’t outlaw drilling off the coast of her town; she’ll have to rely on state leaders and, ultimately, on federal officials to say no to the plan. But that’s far from assured in a state that’s taken a sharp anti-environmental turn in recent years and whose governor and U.S. senators staunchly support drilling.

It Started With A Letter

With its vote, the Kure Beach town council and much of its population are unified in their opposition to opening up areas of the East Coast, from Virginia to Georgia, to offshore drilling, as proposed by the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM) last year. The Atlantic has been off limits to offshore drilling since the early 1980s, a moratorium that was lifted in 2008 by President George W. Bush. President Obama first announced that he’d be opening up the region — at that time, the plan included Delaware down to the middle of Florida — to drilling in 2010. The Deepwater Horizon disaster thwarted those plans, however — as oil gushed from the Macondo well, Obama cancelled a planned lease sale off the coast of Virginia.

The BP oil spill was a warning sign to many Kure Beach residents. But the town’s community and its leaders weren’t always on the same page. In fact, Swearingen’s foray into activism on the issue started with a letter sent by the town’s former mayor, Dean Lambeth, that was written by American Petroleum Institute-backed America’s Energy Forum. The mayor maintained that he sent the letter, which expressed his support for drilling off the Atlantic coast, as a private citizen, but — as detractors have pointed out — he signed it as mayor of Kure Beach.

The town was incensed. More than 300 people showed up to the monthly council meeting in January 2014 to protest the mayor’s action and speak out about offshore drilling. Still, the mayor refused to retract the letter, and the town council ruled not to pass a resolution opposing drilling.

That was a turning point for Swearingen, who at the time was a town councilmember. She decided to take on Lambeth.

“I started a campaign of whether it’s offshore oil or something right here in the middle of town, if you’re an elected official, you need to listen to your constituents,” she said.

Swearingen started working with Oceana, a conservation group that has been heavily involved with Atlantic drilling opposition. She traveled to Washington, D.C. to testify before Congress, and started going door to door in the town, talking to people about offshore drilling and about her campaign for mayor.

“No Drill” signs began to cover the town, and the “overwhelming majority” of people she talked to opposed drilling and the seismic testing that would precede it. And when election day came, people voted with that in mind, ushering Swearingen in to office.

“The environmental aspect of Emily, for me, was key,” said Mo Linquist, an interior designer who lives in Kure Beach and who volunteered for Emily’s campaign.

A Growing Movement

That packed meeting in Kure Beach two years ago wasn’t just a turning point for Swearingen, though — according to Oceana, it helped spark the entire anti-Atlantic drilling movement. Opposition to Atlantic drilling has blossomed across the southern portion of the East Coast over the last few years, as towns have learned more about the Obama administration’s controversial proposal to consider opening the region to oil and gas development. In the weeks following Kure Beach’s vote, four more cities and towns — including the city council of Washington, D.C. — pledged their resistance to Atlantic drilling, bringing the total opposed towns to 104.

Along the coast, the concerns are the same: drilling in the Atlantic is too great a risk for small towns to bear. A spill would decimate their tourism industries, and the industrialization that could come along with drilling would sully their picturesque locales.

“We’re not for sale,” Charleston, South Carolina Mayor Joe Riley said in May. “We don’t need to risk trading the quality of our environment for some prospective economic gain.”

But while towns across the East Coast may be unifying in their opposition to offshore drilling, many state officials — and the oil industry — have welcomed the prospect. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) has called for drilling to be done even closer to shore than the federal government’s plan proposes, saying the 50-mile buffer zone in the plan “unnecessarily puts much of North Carolina’s most accessible and undiscovered resources, frankly, under lock and key.” McCrory’s office didn’t respond to request for comment by ThinkProgress.

McCrory chairs the pro-drilling Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition, a group that includes South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (R), Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (D), and five other governors. That group, according to investigations by the Center for Public Integrity and Institute for Southern Studies, has close ties to the oil industry. The coalition makes its calls for increased oil and gas drilling off the Atlantic coast based on information given to it by two groups with oil industry ties: HBW Resources, a public relations firm that represents major energy interests, and the Consumer Energy Alliance, a nonprofit that calls for an “all of the above” energy strategy and that, between 2011 and 2012, got 30 percent of its membership funds from the American Petroleum Institute, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and America’s Natural Gas Alliance.

The oil industry contends that drilling could bring new economic opportunities to coastal states.

“I think it’s a little premature to take yourselves out of the game,” Andy Radford, senior policy adviser at the American Petroleum Institute, told ThinkProgress at an Atlantic drilling event hosted by the Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA) in Raleigh in January. “There are a lot of opportunities — granted they’re based on projections and forecasts and what have you — but there are opportunities out there.”

But as of now, just how much oil is in the Atlantic is largely unknown. The last estimates were made in the 1970s and 80s, and they used outdated technology. These estimates found about 3.3 billion barrels of oil in the Atlantic — the Gulf of Mexico, for comparison, produced 1,608,000 barrels of oil each day last October.

And if drilling does occur, Atlantic states may not ever see revenue from it. A December report from the Center for a Blue Economy found that, at the moment, there’s no effort to set up a regional revenue-sharing program, which would distribute some oil revenue among Atlantic states. The Gulf of Mexico only got a revenue-sharing program for oil development in 2006 — Gulf states get 37.5 percent of the government’s oil lease and royalty proceeds — and even that setup has come under attack from Congress. McCrory, for his part, has said he won’t support drilling without a revenue-sharing plan.

North Carolina Representative and State Majority Leader Mike Hager said at the CEA event that for him, Atlantic drilling was about jobs. Rutherford County, which he represents, has a 19.2 percent underemployment rate.

“You tell me there are jobs sitting off the coast, billions of dollars of investment out there, I’m going to look at it,” he said. “We owe it to our citizens, everybody in the state and everybody who comes to the state to look into this.” He emphasized, though, that he and his caucus would look at all the details of the proposal before they would make a decision on whether or not to support drilling, and would take safety risks into account.

The Center for a Blue Economy report also found that the ocean economy — the tourism, fishing, and other ocean-related jobs that are key to the Atlantic coast — provided 249,000 jobs in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, and contributed $14.5 billion to the region’s economy in 2012. That’s more jobs than the oil industry estimates Atlantic drilling will create by 2035.

Radford also said that oil development has been able to exist in harmony with other industries — including the fishing and tourism industry — in the Gulf of Mexico for years, so he’s confident it could do the same in the Atlantic. And he said the industry is working hard to cut down on spills.

“The statistic that I like to use is that 99.995 percent of all oil and natural gas produced, transported, and refined in the U.S. every day is done so safely, without incident,” he said.

But a big spill — like the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster that decimated the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, causing serious and lasting damage to the tourism and fishing industries — is exactly what Swearingen, and others in Kure Beach, are concerned about.

“One small mistake — as what we saw in the Gulf — one small mistake is going to literally close islands,” Shawn Cook, owner of Pleasure Island Rentals and the Shuckin Shack, located just up the road from Kure Beach. “My oyster bar would be out of business, not only because there’d be no tourism, but because we buy local seafood, and of course that would no longer be available. My beach equipment rental company wouldn’t have any customers — nobody wants to sit on a beach polluted with oil under an umbrella.”

Before Drilling Even Begins, Concerns Arise

It’s not just the risk of spills, or even the drilling itself, that has scientists, activists, and residents speaking out against Atlantic Ocean drilling.

The lease sale BOEM issues in the Atlantic will be influenced by where oil is located and how much oil is out there. But in order to determine those two pieces of data, BOEM will need to issue permits for seismic testing.

Seismic testing is controversial. The process involves sending blasts of compressed air from seismic airguns deep into the ocean. The blasts go through the seafloor and send sound waves back up to the ocean’s surface — waves that contain information about possible oil and gas deposits below.

The sounds the guns make can be harmful to marine life. In a 2013 report, Oceana claimed that seismic testing along the Atlantic coast could cause thousands of injuries to whales, dolphins, sea turtles, fish, and other marine life. Whales and other cetaceans depend heavily on their hearing for navigation and hunting — many species, particularly types of toothed whales that live in dark or murky waters, use biosonar, or echolocation, to locate prey and find their way around the ocean.

Right whales 16 miles off Cumberland Island, GA on January 26, 2013.

Right whales 16 miles off Cumberland Island, GA on January 26, 2013.

CREDIT: Flickr/FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute

“We know these whales use sound to communicate with each other, to find each other, to check on their young, to find mates, potentially to advertise food resources, and to navigate,” said Ingrid Biedron, marine scientist at Oceana. “We’re worried that the sound from the seismic airgun testing can disrupt this communication and cause them to change behaviors that are essential to their survival.”

The loud airgun blasts can disorient whales, frightening them away from key habitats and causing them to stop hunting. It’s happened before — according to Oceana’s report, bowhead whales off the coast of Alaska have been scared away from their typical habitat due to similar activity.

One of the species Biedron is most concerned about is the North Atlantic right whale, a critically endangered species whose population totals only about 450. Biedron said that the proposed drilling area includes the only known breeding ground for these whales.

“If even two or three right whale births were affected, that could cause the species to tilt on the trajectory towards extinction,” she said.

The Mid- and South Atlantic Fishery Management Councils, which work to develop conservation strategies and set fishery management plans within their regions, have also expressed concerns about seismic testing, particularly its impacts on key grouper and snapper habitats.

‘This Is Where All Of Us Want To Be For The Rest Of Our Lives’

Towns, and even states, are limited in what impact their opposition to offshore drilling can have on actual federal policy. States only control waters three nautical miles (3.45 land miles) off their coast, and the federal government is currently proposing drilling 50 miles off the coast. So ultimately, the federal government will have final say in drilling in the Atlantic.

But towns are being joined by some state and local lawmakers in opposing both drilling and seismic testing in the Atlantic. In December, Congressmen Mark Sanford (R-SC) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) led a coalition of 33 lawmakers in sending a letter to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, asking the agency to rewrite its environmental reviews for seismic testing and avoid granting any permits for seismic testing until this rewrite is completed.

“The current basis for issuing seismic testing permits is incomplete,” Rep. Sanford said in a statement. “It does not take into account the long-term effects that seismic testing will have on marine life or the impact on the economy due to industrialization of the coast. Accordingly, we don’t think testing that could profoundly affect our coastal communities should be allowed to proceed based on an insufficient study.”

Marine scientists have joined the fight — 75 of them sent a letter to President Obama, outlining the impacts seismic testing could have on marine life. Nationwide, About 650 state and local officials have come out in opposition to the plan, along with 750 businesses and business associations.

“We fishermen have a unique knowledge of healthy ocean ecosystems, and we are extremely concerned about the serious risks posed by offshore drilling and seismic testing,” wrote Timothy P. O’Brien, president of Virginia-based Tycoon Tackle, Inc., in an op-ed last year. “The thought that the negative effects of seismic testing — or the devastating repercussions of a major spill like we saw in the Gulf — could destroy the fish populations we rely on and rebuilt is unacceptable to us.”

And states have successfully fought off oil drilling off their coasts in the past. In 1989, residents in Outer Banks, North Carolina banded together to oppose a Mobil plan to drill for oil off their coast the following year. In the middle of their fight, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck a reef off the coast of Alaska, spilling 38 million gallons of oil into the wildlife-rich waters. The spill “was a pretty stark demonstration of what could happen if a similar spill happened on the N.C. coast,” Derb Carter, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Chapel Hill office, and who was involved in the Mobil fight, said.

The group of anti-drilling Outer Banks residents, which named itself LegaSea, “sold bumper stickers and T-shirts, collected thousands of signatures on petitions, and launched letter-writing campaigns to government officials,” Jan DeBlieu, one of the residents involved with the fight, wrote in Mother Jones in 2001. The group also lobbied Congress — something that Atlantic coast mayors and businessowners have also been doing over the last few years. LegaSea eventually got the state’s Republican governor on their side, and won the fight against Mobil.

BOEM, for its part, says it’s committed to taking public comment into account as it crafts its updated plan, set to be released early this year. BOEM’s management director, Abigail Ross Hopper, said at an event in Raleigh this month that after the agency publishes its updated proposed plan and its draft environmental impact statement early this year, it will hold public meetings in affected states and provide a 90-day comment period. Then, towards the end of 2016, the agency will put out its final plan, which will outline where — both in the Atlantic and in other regions — the agency will issue lease sales between 2017 and 2022.

Swearingen is hopeful that, as opposition continues to grow, the administration will think twice about seismic testing and, ultimately, drilling.

“We’re here because this is absolute paradise, and you cannot find a better place in the world to live than right here in this beautiful, beautiful clean beach,” she said of Kure Beach’s residents. “This is where all of us want to be for the rest of our lives, and sometimes some things like that are more important than money.”