It was more like an oil-industry conference … and a cheesy one at that.

The “listening session” that the U.S. Interior Department sponsored a couple of weeks ago on President Trump’s proposal to open virtually the entire U.S. coastline to oil and natural gas drilling featured placards that informed us what oil is and why it’s important to the country. No warnings about spills, no pictures of burning rigs or oil-coated cormorants. A handful of smiling government experts politely answered questions and directed people to laptops if they wanted to submit comments. A sign warned that all such comments should be based on facts, not emotions.

It all was terribly boring, not very informative and ultimately not worth the drive. I got the impression that’s the way they wanted it.

I drove away from the North Raleigh Hilton on that cold, wet afternoon with one, dreary conclusion: The fix is in.

Understand that we shouldn’t even be talking about this right now. The federal government two years ago approved a five-year, offshore leasing plan that ends in 2022. Widespread opposition along the East Coast forced Interior, which manages drilling leases three or more miles from shore, to exclude the Atlantic Ocean in its approved plan.

But Trump signed an unprecedented executive order in April to reopen that plan to allow leasing “to the maximum extent permitted by law.” That means just about everywhere, including off the North Carolina coast.

The first step in the process outlined in federal law is to accept public comments on the environmental review that the law also requires. Thus, the “listening sessions.”

I had gone to Raleigh as your mayor pro tem, representing Swansboro to submit into the official federal record the resolution the town passed last year opposing offshore drilling. But no one there could take it. They pointed me to the computers. One smiling, young Interior official informed me that I would have to travel to Washington if I wanted to hand-deliver it.

In the past, I would have joined hundreds of people in a packed meeting room. We would have all been given an opportunity to step to a microphone and say our piece before a federal hearing officer and, yes, hand over anything we wanted. All our documents and comments would have become part of the official record. Back then, the meetings were called hearings and they would last hours. They could be loud and, yes, sometimes, rude. Like democracy, they could be messy.

Clearly, that’s not what the Interior Department wanted when it scheduled these listening sessions in 23 capital cities in coastal states across the country. As in those other places, hundreds of drilling opponents showed up in Raleigh, but the session’s format discouraged any official outbursts of boisterousness. So, as in those other places, opponents repaired to the opposite end of the hotel to hold a loud, rousing rally decorated by signs and banners and punctuated by invective. But all that was out of range of Interior officials.

The department avoided holding these sessions in coastal locations where residents are most at risk and where emotions are the highest. That’s also by design. When it last collected comments on the environmental assessment two years ago, Interior held four meetings in North Carolina, including three on the coast. While they were similar in format to these “listening sessions,” those meetings were less scripted, manned by more officials and included information on environmental and social risks and alternative energies.

But why replicate that effort and spend the money if the decision has already been made? Unlike the last time, it’s hard to believe that what’s going on now is an honest attempt to gauge public sentiment or to assess risks. Why should anyone think that this president, who has eliminated protection for public lands, turned the Environmental Protection Agency into a shill for industry and cut regulations, cares about sea turtles, fishing grounds, migrating whales or oil-covered beaches? Why should any one think that an Interior secretary who has proposed opening public lands to drilling and mining and who, along with deputies, has met 180 times with oil-industry executives cares about protecting our natural resources?

To reach any other conclusion that this environmental assessment will determine that drilling is good for us is laughable. So is thinking that what they’re doing now is anything more than merely going through the motions of meeting legal requirements.

While I expect Interior to race through the study, don’t expect to see rigs appear off our coast any time soon. The many irregularities in Interior’s process guarantee legal challenges. And no oilman who must answer to shareholders will attempt to drill in a virgin territory like the Atlantic with oil selling below $50 a barrel and when a glut of natural gas has those prices at historic lows. He’d lose his shirt and his job.

 

Frank Tursi is Swansboro mayor pro-tem.

(3) comments

David Collins

Must admit that when I first looked at the picture of the coastal group at the meeting I was sure I was looking at a Woodstock remix. Fast forward 40 or so years and it still looked like an aging remix. After reading of the goings on I can understand why the officials declined to hear your rants and slogans. Am sure they were duly impressed. As far as Swansboro’s resolution, take it to Washington. Am quite sure they have a file for such things. Life goes on.

bill

I believe George W. had some offshore proposals on the table when he left office, and Barak also touted allowing offshore drilling in March 2010 as part of a campaign promise. This is not the brainchild of one president, including our current POTUS, but has been kicked around off and on for years. Politics, being the monster it is, has brought about many changes in policies that were promised during a campaign. Let's face it. We have too many toys that use fuel. Heck, everyone of driving age in most families of means has a vehicle of some type, and most use petrochemicals for propulsion. Additionally, think of the vast uses of petroleum in many products that we all take for granted. Folks, we use too much of this stuff. The only way it will change is when we curtail our usage. I live less than one half mile from the nearest food store, yet continue to climb in my truck and drive there and back to shop for even small items. i do this all the time, and, I have two bicycles and ride them every week. We are spoiled. So stop the blame game and look at what each of us can do to use less and less gasoline, etc. Then maybe we can curtail much of this exploration we say we do not want.

David Collins

Bill is correct. We do use way to much energy. Sadly our infrastructure is not layed out to accommodate peddle power, for the most part. Not in my wildest dreams would I even consider trying to negotiate Queens Creek Road and HY 24 on a bicycle. Do not have a death wish quite yet. Electric cars, well they are nice but have severe range limitations on affordable ones and then there are the recharging issues. It is just where we are in our evolutionary cycle. No such thing as Free energy. Basic Physics.

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