21 january 2016

Obama's offshore drilling plan meets heavy resistance along Atlantic coast

Irate residents in small coastal towns say Obama’s plan to open a new fossil fuel frontier would harm endangered marine life – as politicians warn of ‘tragedy’

Oliver Milman in Kure Beach, North Carolina, The Guardian, Thursday 21 January 2016

Kure Beach, North Carolina, doesn’t seem a likely place to call itself “ground zero” for a key plank of Barack Obama’s presidential legacy. The small coastal town’s concerns rarely stretch beyond its golden beaches and shucked oysters; but it has found itself at the forefront of a struggle to head off a huge expansion in US oil drilling.

Obama’s interior department has proposed prising open the US’s Atlantic seabed for oil and gas drilling, ending various congressional and presidential bans that stretch back to 1984. The nascent 2017-2022 plan, to be finalised by the end of the year, would lease out nearly 104m acres of the Atlantic – stretching from Maryland down to Georgia – to petroleum companies.

The potential drilling, which the interior secretary, Sally Jewell, says is “a key part of the president’s efforts to support American jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil”, has dismayed his allies. Obama has been accused of deploying the sort of tortured logic last seen when he initially allowed Shell into the Arctic while attempting to forge a climate legacy via a 196-nation pledge to cut greenhouse emissions and phase out fossil fuel use by the second half of the century.

Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have all distanced themselves from opening up a new fossil fuel frontier in the Atlantic. Edward Markey, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, has even fretted that any oil spill would cause a “tragedy” along the entire eastern seaboard.

“Everyone I know here doesn’t want the drilling,” said Mo Linquist, who runs an arts store and gallery in Kure Beach. “I voted for Obama in both his elections, so I was so disappointed they would open it up. What were they thinking?”

In Kure Beach, the concerns are more immediate than the spectre of a Deepwater Horizon-like spill. The community, located on a thin island south of Wilmington, has been in a mild state of uproar for the past two years, when its then mayor Dean Lambeth put his name to a letter supporting seismic testing for oil and gas. The letter was penned by America’s Energy Forum, a lobbying group backed by the American Petroleum Institute.

Irate residents claim that seismic testing, during which compressed air guns are blasted underwater to help ascertain whether rock formations contain fossil fuels, would harm marine life, including 20 species of marine mammals – among them the endangered right whales that traverse the area.

This could drive away visitors from the tourism-dependent town, which has a winter population of 2,000 that swells tenfold during summer. Eight applications for seismic testing are before the federal regulator, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Lambeth was ousted as mayor by anti-drilling candidate Emilie Swearingen in an election in December. Tuesday night was Kure Beach’s moment in the spotlight, as hundreds of residents crammed into the small council chambers to see the outcome of a vote brought by Swearingen to oppose drilling and seismic testing.

It passed unanimously, to whoops and some tears in the audience, many of whom wore T-shirts for the anti-drilling group Oceana.

From being the first Atlantic-facing community to raise the issue of drilling, Kure Beach, after much angst, became the 100th east coast municipality to formally oppose drilling or air-gun blasting. The issue has bloomed into a cause célèbre along the east coast, with actors Ted Danson, Kate Walsh and Sam Waterston among those set to lobby lawmakers in Washington DC next week to rule out any Atlantic drilling.

Swearingen said she hoped the small but persistent voice of Kure Beach will echo in Washington.

“Kure Beach has become ground zero for seismic testing and offshore oil,” Swearingen said. “We helped 99 other communities out there stand up to the plate to tell Congress and the president of the United States to not put our coastal communities at risk.

“Our marine life means so much to us; it’s our environment, our economy, our tourism and, most of all, our quality of life. Some things are way too precious for money to buy.”

Finding a supporter of offshore drilling in Kure Beach is tricky.

Shawn Cook, who moved to the island from the west coast 18 years ago and has run the Shuckin Shack oyster restaurant for the past decade, said he has “never run into anyone who wants it”.

“The only person who was for it was Dean Lambeth,” he said. “How do you put a price tag on the Earth? Obama is just flip-flopping. One disaster and all these people would lose their jobs. It would be a ghost town.”

The residents of Kure Beach are rightfully proud of the near-pristine beaches that stretch along the island – “It’s not as busy as Wrightsville. It’s very quaint down here,” as Linquist puts it. Once considered a rather rough fishing village, the area has become gentrified amid an influx of people from the north-east states, bringing with it a relatively new recycling practice and raised property prices. A similar process has taken place in nearby Carolina Beach and Wilmington.

The rows of pastel-coloured houses are well kept, the streets clean. New developments are popping up. If there’s a yearning for jobs and money from big oil, it’s well hidden.

“The community is thriving,” Cook said. “We are doing just fine as we are.”

But there are powerful voices in favour of oil drilling. The Department of the Interior is legally required to factor in the “interest of potential oil and gas producers” and the “laws, goals, and policies of affected states”. The will of small towns like Kure Beach is up against the clout of eight separate governors and big business.

The next president could also be in favour: on the rare occasions when Republican candidates are asked about the future livability of the planet rather than Donald Trump’s antics, all have broadly supported drilling.

Nikki Haley, the South Carolina governor who recently shot to national prominence for her State of the Union response, has said she’s a “strong supporter” of offshore drilling. Pat McCrory, her North Carolina counterpart, is, if anything, even more enthusiastic.

“Governor McCrory supports job-creating offshore energy exploration provided it includes revenue sharing between the federal government and mid-Atlantic states, as is done with Gulf coast states,” a spokeswoman said.

“With revenue sharing in place, coastal towns would have the resources they need to mitigate any environmental impacts and protect our vibrant visitor industry.”

McCrory wants to bring forward the Atlantic lease sales (under the current plan, they would take place in 2021) and has also questioned why the leases will be 50 miles out to sea. The federally administrated 1.7bn-acre outer continental shelf starts three miles from shore, stretching out to the 200-mile limit that makes up US waters. A 50-mile “buffer” has been proposed for the Atlantic section so drilling wouldn’t interfere with fishing and marine mammals.

Whether the states will be able to get a slice of the federal oil bounty is uncertain. The volume of the resource is also hard to pin down – the whole east coast is thought to contain 4.7bn barrels of oil and 37.5tn cubic feet of natural gas. But these estimates were conducted 30 years ago – improved seismic testing could reveal a far greater haul.

The American Petroleum Institute estimates 6,000 barrels of oil equivalent could be pumped per day by 2026, rising to 1.34m barrels by 2035. Around 60% of the resource would be natural gas, API said, with oil making up 40%.

The lobby group claims North Carolina and South Carolina would be the biggest beneficiaries of the 280,000 jobs and $195bn in new investment it forecasts will be created by Atlantic drilling.

“Our nation’s new status as the world’s leading producer of oil and natural gas is saving American families and businesses billions in energy costs,” said Eric Wohlschlegel, an API spokesman. “It has also enhanced global security by diminishing the influence of less-stable oil-producing regions.”

Wohlschlegel dismisses the idea that offshore drilling isn’t compatible with beachside locales that require tourism to prosper.

“Alabama is proud of their ‘turquoise waters and sugar-white sands’ as highlighted on the state’s official travel website,” he said. “But coastal Alabama is also able to brag about a second economic engine – offshore oil and natural gas.

“If we are fortunate enough to develop the Atlantic offshore oil and natural gas resources, our industry will work to partner with and complement existing businesses, not detract from them.”

But while the Gulf of Mexico has been a longstanding oil region, offshore drilling is new to the east coast and could alter its character. During the disastrous 2010 Gulf oil spill, there were fears that the oil could seep up the east coast.

Prof Lawrence Cahoon, a marine biologist at the University of North Carolina, recalls getting frantic telephone calls over the possibility the Carolinas could see their beaches and marine life become coated in oil.

“During the BP oil spill, there were models shown on TV that predicted oil would get out of [the] Gulf and get up the east coast and people started canceling their summer rentals in North Carolina,” he said.

“I had panicked calls from the visitors’ bureau asking if it was really a problem; they were terrified. I said no there is no chance of that. It didn’t get to within 1,000 miles of us, but that was simply the perception of an oil spill. If we had an actual oil spill here, it would be devastating.”

Cahoon said he was “stunned” by the beauty of the North Carolina beaches when he moved to the area from New Jersey. The beaches are flushed clean by Gulf Stream waters and don’t contain much of the heavy industry seen elsewhere.

The area is also a biodiversity hotspot – Cape Hatteras, a formation that juts out from North Carolina, is a site where the Gulf Stream meets the cooler Virginia stream from the north. It teems with marine life; beaked, right and pilot whales inhabit the area, as do porpoises and, in the warmer months, sea turtles. Several species of seabird would also be at risk from any oil spill.

There are competing views on how seriously whales are affected by seismic testing, but, as Cahoon points out, “absence of evidence doesn’t mean evidence of absence”. A current lack of any infrastructure to contain and clean up any spill is also a concern.

“This is a very dynamic area of ocean. It would be very, very difficult to contain an oil spill,” Cahoon said. “The North Atlantic makes the Gulf of Mexico look like a lake. It’s a lot rougher and has stronger currents. A big spill would foul at least some of the beaches if it went on long enough, which would be an economic disaster. It would be a significant challenge.”

The oil drilling plan will be pulled apart and argued in various public and congressional comment periods over 2016. But residents of Kure Beach feel they have won their own little battle, if only for now.

“We now feel we have the representation we wanted,” Linquist said. “If we can say on a grassroots level that we don’t want this, our voices will be heard. I have to believe that. I’m an optimist.”

This article was amended on 21 January 2016 to clarify that environmental group Oceana did not officially back anti-drilling candidate Emilie Swearingen for mayor.

>>> Back to list