Former Gov. Jim Martin was a scientist. I mention this because it's a popular dodge for Republicans these days, when asked about any environmental issue they'd rather not address, to say that they aren't scientists and can't be expected to foretell the future.
Martin is a Republican and, before getting into politics, a chemistry professor at Davidson College. And when, as governor, he was faced in the late '80s with the question of whether drilling for oil off the North Carolina coast was in the state's best interest, he looked to the science—and science advisers—before giving his answer: No.
The Martin model was much missed by the scientists and environmental activists who gathered at UNC-Chapel Hill last week to discuss the new push for offshore drilling in waters from Virginia to Georgia—including North Carolina.
This time, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory—not a scientist—is waving his pom-poms for the oil and gas industry. McCrory chairs the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition, eight governors who represent some but not all of the Atlantic Coast states. The group exists "to influence a sensible path forward for the development of America's offshore energy resources."
Translation: Drill, baby, drill" and que sera sera.
I'm not a scientist, but listening to the marine experts who spoke in Chapel Hill, I learned some things:
• The North Carolina coast, because of an unusual confluence of coastal flows along with the Gulf Stream, is a unique habitat for fish, shellfish, birds and marine animals to feed and breed in bountiful numbers.
• The diversity of species, including 30 whales and an amazing variety of birds, is unmatched in the U.S.
• Not enough is known about the impact of oil and other pollutants on our coastal ecosystem.
• Not enough is known about the direction of ocean currents at different times.
• A major oil spill, from a deepwater well or tanker at sea, could be devastating to the ecosystem.
• A major spill, if it comes ashore, would be catastrophic for the commercial and recreational fishing industries and for tourism.
Charles (Pete) Peterson is a professor at UNC-CH who was among Martin's advisers. When Mobil sought to drill off Cape Hatteras, Peterson said, Martin decided the company must first produce sufficient data to assure that drilling wouldn't threaten the coastal economy.
The data didn't exist, Peterson said, and for the most part, still doesn't. Lack of knowledge about whether a spill might reach estuarine areas, threatening fish and shellfish reproduction, remains "an area of grave concern," he said.
According to Larry Cahoon, a UNC-Wilmington professor, some of the things scientists "knew" proved to be wrong. For example, they assumed that a spill where Mobil wanted to drill—38 miles offshore—would be carried out to sea. But studies showed that, 30 percent of the time, it would head for shore. "That was a big surprise," Cahoon said.
The risks were large, therefore, and the rewards iffy since early seismic testing indicated that our offshore oil reserves were modest. The risks shot up when the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker working in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, ran aground in 1989, slathering 1,300 miles of coastline.
Two decades later, the industry was back trying to get North Carolina's support for drilling in the Atlantic. In 2010, an advisory panel to Gov. Bev Perdue issued a lukewarm report. One week later, BP's infamous Deepwater Horizon well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. One credible estimate of the damage to Gulf fisheries: $8.7 billion and 22,000 jobs.
Nonetheless, offshore drilling continues in the Gulf and Alaska. In January, the federal Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM) issued a draft five-year plan (2017–2022) which could potentially lead to drilling in 10 new locations in the Gulf, three more in Arctic waters and, for the first time, in a single large area located 50 miles or more off our coast.
No question, McCrory's cheerleading was a factor. Under the laws governing offshore drilling, BOEM can grant leases to industry, but state policies must be found "consistent." The way the Martin Administration rebuffed Mobil, for example, was by arguing that Mobil couldn't show that the impacts from drilling would be consistent with the goals of the state's Coastal Area Management Act.
Martin created a special office to examine drilling's impacts. By contrast, McCrory's much-reduced Coastal Area Management office no longer employs even a single full-time staffer to analyze consistency issues, said Robin Smith, former assistant secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Smith questions whether the state is prepared to protect its interests. As do I.
It's still unclear how much oil and natural gas is available off the N.C. coast. Not to mention that the price of both is down sharply because of global over-production and breakthroughs in wind, solar and other renewable energy alternatives.
Perhaps there's nothing to fear, therefore, from the BOEM leasing plan. It is only a draft and subject to change, or to the industry's deciding it's prohibitively expensive to drill in the Atlantic with oil prices so low.
Or, lots of oil and gas might be out there, the price may be right, and in 20 years, we could have hundreds of oil rigs pumping offshore and, onshore, the equivalent of another New Jersey in terms of pipelines, refineries, storage tanks, tanker trucks, with all the attendant pollution and, yes, jobs.
That would spell success for industry. But it doesn't sound like a future any North Carolina governor should want for our coast.
BOEM is accepting comment on plan through March 30: www.boem.gov/five-year-program
This article appeared in print with the headline "The coast is not clear."