A new federal proposal to allow offshore oil drilling from Virginia to Georgia is receiving some pushback from North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, who on Wednesday said drilling should be allowed even closer to his state’s renowned beaches and fishing grounds than is currently being considered.
Testifying before a House of Representatives panel on energy and mineral resources, McCrory first hailed the Obama administration’s offshore drilling plan for the Atlantic as an economic boon. But he then decried the proposal’s inclusion of a 50-mile “buffer zone” — an area where drilling is not allowed to occur — designed to reduce conflicts with other coastal industries like tourism and fishing, and mitigate impacts on coastal wildlife. The buffer zone would extend from Georgia’s southern border to Virginia’s northern limit.
In his testimony, McCrory criticized the buffer zone as putting too much of the offshore resources “under lock and key.” Similarly, in a recently publicized letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, McCrory requested that the protective buffer be shrunk to just 30 miles, to allow drilling to occur 20 miles closer to North Carolina’s beaches than they would be under the Obama administration’s plan.
“North Carolina’s coastal and ocean activities would be undisturbed and the viewshed from any of our 320 miles of ocean beaches and shoreline would remain unobstructed with buffer reduction to 30 miles,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, the coastal communities that would be closest to offshore drilling activity in North Carolina are registering a different opinion. The governments of 16 of the state’s coastal cities and towns have passed resolutions opposing offshore oil exploration and development activities, as have the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce and the Dare County, North Carolina, Tourism Board. In March, a federal hearing on Atlantic drilling in Kill Devil Hills drew what a Department of Interior spokeswoman called the largest crowd in the ocean energy agency’s history, the majority of whom opposed offshore oil development.
Emilie Swearingen, a town commissioner from Kure Beach, North Carolina that also testified at Wednesday’s congressional hearing, expressed strong opposition to offshore drilling, and voiced her town’s concerns that an oil spill off their shores would wreck the region’s fishing and tourism-driven economy.
“There is no place for this on the coast of North Carolina,” she said at the hearing.
Coastal tourism and recreation is a major contributor to North Carolina’s finances. According to statistics compiled from North Carolina’s Department of Commerce, nine of the state’s coastal counties generated more than $2.6 billion in tourism spending in 2013, supporting 29,740 jobs and $124.96 million in state tax receipts.
Due to past public opposition and various temporary moratoria imposed by both Congress and multiple presidential administrations, no drilling has occurred in U.S. Atlantic waters since 1984. But now, facing a resurgence in support for offshore oil development in the Atlantic from the governors of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, the Department of the Interior — which oversees all energy development in US federal waters — has taken preliminary steps to restart the program.
Wednesday’s hearing on the proposed offshore drilling program comes less than a week before the five year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, which occurred 50 miles off of Louisiana’s coast. That spill required clean-up activities on more than 410 miles of oil-marred Gulf coastline, and resulted in more than $40 billion in economic losses in the region.
Earlier this week, the Obama administration also announced new regulations aimed at improving the safety of offshore drilling. However, environmentalists have said those regulations are similar to the best practices already adopted by the oil and gas industry, and that new technologies cannot always account for the human error and lapses of judgment that have been the underlying causes of major spills like the Exxon Valdez in Alaska and the Deepwater Horizon.
Members of the oil industry have said they are still reviewing the rules.
Shiva Polefka is a Policy Analyst with the Ocean Policy program at the Center for American Progress.