MOREHEAD CITY — Nearly 200 people, most of them from Carteret County and the vast majority opposed to offshore drilling and seismic testing for oil and gas, showed up Wednesday afternoon to the Crystal Coast Civic Center for a public hearing held by the state Department of Environmental Quality.
The session, the second of three along the coast this week, was set up in the wake of Gov. Roy Cooper’s vigorous “Not Off Our Coast” statements, which he first voiced at a
private event July 29 at Fort Macon State Park in Atlantic Beach. The state is compiling the comments before making official statements to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which runs the drilling and program.
According to DEQ spokesperson Sarah Young, 190 people, not including staff, signed in for the session, and others might have been there without signing in. Of those, 31 spoke, with 26 opposed testing and drilling, four in support and one “neutral” to the process, she said.
All were there because of President Donald Trump’s effort, through an executive order in April, to reverse President Barack Obama’s closure of the Atlantic to air gun seismic testing and drilling.
President Obama had first announced a potential opening in the 2017-22 drilling plan in January 2015, then shut it down in March 2016 after overwhelming opposition from local governments, a bipartisan group of members of Congress, scientists, businesses and thousands of coastal residents.
Of the few speakers who didn’t voice opposition to the reopening of the Atlantic during the hearing Wednesday, at least three represented or had worked for the oil drilling or seismic testing industry. A couple other speakers were for testing “to see what’s out there,” but indicated they were not yet necessarily for actual drilling and production.
The rest, like David Sledge of Morehead City, were adamantly opposed, and cited, among other things, the value of the North Carolina coast’s fishing and tourism industries, both almost entirely dependent upon clean ocean and sound waters that they believe would eventually be spoiled by oil and gas production and industrialization.
They also cited statistics that indicate North Carolina wouldn’t get many direct jobs from drilling or testing and would not receive any “royalties” from production under current law.
Mr. Sledge said he’d been a surfer for 55 years, from Maine to the Florida Keys, in Hawaii, Costa Rica and other locales, and “this (North Carolina) is the most pristine ocean (he’s seen) in the world” in a populated place.
Drilling in the Atlantic – especially in the treacherous waters off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where some believe the most likely large quantities of oil and gas would be found – is absurd, he said.
“They couldn’t even do it (safely) in the Gulf (of Mexico), where it’s placid,” he said.
Without the fishing and tourism industry, Mr. Sledge said, the North Carolina coast would be impoverished, like much of Appalachia. And, he said, the petroleum industry is the biggest threat to human survival, expect for “Donald Trump and North Korea.”
Tom Kies, president of the Carteret County Chamber of Commerce and vice president of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast (BAPAC), said the latter group represents 43,500 East Coast businesses and 500,000 members of commercial fishing families who don’t want to see oil and gas production in and along the Atlantic.
He cited recent studies that show seismic testing not only poses a threat to marine mammals – dolphins and whales – but also scatters fish. The tourism and fishing industries are the economic drivers of the coast, Mr. Kies said, noting that more than 100 local governments have opposed drilling and testing along the East Coast.
Among those are Atlantic Beach, Beaufort, Cedar Point, Emerald Isle and Morehead
City in Carteret County, and Swansboro in nearby Onslow County.
“It’s not good business anywhere along the coast, and especially not in North Carolina,” he said.
Swansboro Commissioner Frank Tursi was among those who spoke, and noted his town board had unanimously adopted a resolution of opposition during its meeting Tuesday, repeating an action taken last year.
Michael Murdoch of Morehead City, chairman of the Croatan Group of the Sierra Club, said that every time there’s an oil spill or disaster like the Exxon Valdez in Alaska or the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, the industry says it has learned and it won’t happen again.
“But I’m telling you it will happen,” he said. “We should be looking to clean energy,” such as wind and solar, “not dirty energy.”
But David McCallum, executive director of the North Carolina Petroleum Council, said that for economic development – thousands of jobs – and for national energy security, the country needs to find out what’s out there, in terms of oil and gas deposits off the Atlantic Coast.
The last time the Atlantic was seriously considered at all was in the 1980s, and any information is now 30 years old, he said, and needs to be updated.
He said it was “unfortunate” that Gov. Cooper opposed testing and drilling prior to the state even holding these hearings, and said it would be bad for North Carolina not to have a “seat at the table.” Drilling would be years down the road, he claimed, but if it happens, it will generate many jobs for North Carolinians.
Seismic testing can and has been done safely, despite fears expressed by other speakers, said Dennis Hayes, a Beaufort resident who said he had spent decades working in oil exploration, for companies like Western Geophysical in Houston, Texas.
Seismic testing, he said, is an “implosion,” not an “explosion,” and the testing vessels move slowly. Fish can get out of the way, as can mammals.
Chris McCaffity, a Morehead City resident and commercial fisherman, was one who favored some testing, but not necessarily drilling at this time.
He said the state should try to use the best possible technology to map potential resources and make it available “so we all know what is out there,” instead of allowing the various seismic testing companies to do it and keep the information for themselves.
“If we do it, we need to do it right,” he said. “We need to think things through.”
Dr. Doug Nowacek, a Duke University Marine Laboratory professor and researcher and world-renowned expert on marine mammals and acoustics in the ocean, disagreed that seismic testing doesn’t harm marine life, including dolphins and endangered and threatened mammals, such as the right whale: it can disrupt their migration and feeding.
Further, he said, recent studies indicate that seismic testing can cause significant mortality in zooplankton, the backbone of the marine food chain.
If surveys for oil and gas must be done, he said, there is a “long list of alternatives.”
Dr. Andy Read, director of the Duke Lab and a professor whose research focuses on marine mammals, seabirds, sea turtles, whales and whaling, said he strongly opposes seismic testing and drilling, not only because of the impacts on marine life, but because “our community depends on clean water” for its economy.
These practices, he said, “generate millions in profits” and we should “require that these technologies be safe.”
He noted that before drugs are approved for human use, the federal Food and Drug Administration requires years of testing for safety, and we should “hold these companies to the same standards.”
Dr. Craig Harms, a veterinarian with N.C. State’s Center for Marine Science and Technology in Morehead City, said sea turtles face huge risks from the oil industry, as well.
Dr. Kyle Horton, a Kure Beach physician who is running for Congress in the state’s 7th District, said she’s concerned about human life, not just marine life, if drilling and industrialization come to the North Carolina coast.
“Where they drill, they spill, and where they spill, they have killed, and not just marine life,” she said, citing accidental deaths in drilling disasters and increased stress on the population.
Ana Zivanovic-Nenadovic, senior policy analyst for the N.C. Coastal Federation, cited not only the potential impacts on water quality and the economy, but also the social, cultural and spiritual heath of people in the communities that would be affected by the oil industry.
And Dr. Susan Schmidt of Beaufort said that studies by researchers at N.C. State and elsewhere have shown that a spill anywhere off the N.C. Coast will result in oil getting into our estuaries and have long-lasting impacts, like in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez and along the Gulf after Deepwater Horizon.
“We should not allow (oil companies) to despoil North Carolina shores and waters,” she said.
Jess Hawkins, a former N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries biologist who now operates a water-related ecotourism business, said the North Carolina coast is unique – with its vast inland sounds and interconnected estuarine system – and the risk of damage from the oil industry is not worth it, economically or environmentally.
He noted that two regional fishery management councils – the South Atlantic and Mid-Atlantic – have adopted resolutions against testing and drilling because of the potential harm to fisheries. The state’s waters serve as spawning areas for species caught elsewhere.
Mr. Hawkins also noted that while some have said the governor can’t stop drilling in federal waters, Republican N.C. Gov. Jim Martin essentially did just that in 1990, when, after a lengthy study, he decided oil and gas drilling was not consistent with North Carolina’s federally approved coastal management program.
Mobil Oil, along with other partners, had paid $103.8 million for a lease of one nine-square-mile block of ocean, about 35 miles east of Salvo, on the Outer Banks. There were other leases, but that’s where they most wanted to drill.
After Gov. Martin’s decision, Mobil appealed to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, who agreed with the state, although Mobil eventually won back its lease money in court. Republican George H.W. Bush was president at the time.
Finally, Larry Baldwin, the Crystal Coast Waterkeeper based in Morehead City, said it’s not just an environmental and economic issue for the coast, but also for inland residents and businesses who depend on the coast for seafood and recreation.
“We don’t need this (testing), whether it’s an implosion or an explosion,” he said.
Most of those who speak in favor of testing and drilling, he said, are paid by the industry, “but science is real,” and scientists care about facts.
Turnout for the Morehead City hearing was higher than in Wilmington, where the official county was 162, with 37 signed up to speak.
The final hearing was Thursday evening in Manteo.
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