NC: Support for oil drilling rebounds despite inconclusive evidence of its impact on state

Posted on: August 9th, 2010 by The American Independent No Comments

Favorable opinions about offshore drilling among North Carolinians are creeping back up as the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is subsiding.

A poll released Thursday by Public Policy Polling found that 50 percent of respondents in the state now support drilling, and 39 percent oppose it. Coastal residents in the northeastern part of the state, where oil companies in the past have expressed interest in exploring offshore, are even more amenable to drilling, at 55 percent. Southeastern coastal residents, at 52 percent, also favor the idea more than the rest of the state.

Although the percentages who favor drilling off the coast is still a ways from the 61 percent approval from those polled by PPP in April — before the disastrous leak — it is a leap from last month’s PPP poll that found only 42 percent of North Carolinians supportive of drilling, while 46 were against it.

Yet, a report (PDF) from from the Legislative Research Commission Advisory Subcommittee on Offshore Energy Exploration released in May to the North Carolina General Assembly revealed that very little definitive information is available about the amount of hydrocarbon resources available or what the implications would be in tapping them. The report was approved just one week before the BP spill. (Consequently, the panel acknowledged the oil spill’s impact on the report, delivering it “with regrets that we cannot be more definitive at this time” given the “unduly optimistic” information they were provided for the report, as well as the new federal policies developing at the time of the release.)

According to the federal Minerals Management Agency estimates in the report, there is 0.94 billion barrels of oil and 5.54 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that is economically viable off North Carolina — one of the largest deposits off the Atlantic coast.

Douglas Rader, chief oceans scientist at the Raleigh office of the Environmental Defense Fund and the co-chairman of the state legislature’s offshore energy exploration report, said he believes residents support drilling based on the mistaken idea that it would reduce the price of gas in the state, or provide thousands of jobs.

“In hard times, many people grasp at any straws available,” he said. “The panel found that many scenarios would quite likely yield very little economic development, but important environmental risks.”

Nevertheless, the poll showed the renewed support for drilling is reflected across the board politically.

Tommy Thompson, president of NC-20, a lobbying group for coastal counties, said that natural gas development off the coast would be an enormous boost to the economy. Only making Route 17 an interstate highway, he said, would have more impact on economic development on the coast.

“Eastern North Carolina is in general the poorest region in the state,” Thompson said. “I think the prospect of offshore drilling is just exciting to people here, notwithstanding the BP experience.”

Thompson, who is also the executive director of Beaufort County Economic Development Commission, said that natural gas is not as dirty or dangerous as oil. He said the fuel could be piped inland to manufacture plastic, which he said is a huge industry in Houston.

“It would be a very beneficial thing for the coast,” he said. “There’s very little going on in the east. In the last three or four years, almost nothing has come east of I-95.”

Though under current federal law, Rader said, permits that allow exploration offshore cannot dictate whether it’s for oil or gas. So if the state allows drilling, it can’t limit it to just natural gas, which is perceived by many to be less risky.

An area 45 miles off Hatteras is believed to hold an enormous deposit of natural gas. A proposal in the late 1980s by Mobil Oil Corp., and another in the 1990s by Chevron USA to explore off the Outer Banks were eventually dropped. At the time, public sentiment in North Carolina was strongly opposed to offshore drilling because of fears that an oil spill would destroy the robust tourism and fishing industries.

The tourism industry, the biggest loser if there was a spill, supports 190,000 jobs in the state, the offshore energy subcommittee report said. In 2008, that represented $17 billion in domestic visitor spending. Tourism also generates about $1.4 billion in state and local tax revenue.

Fishing in the state is another economic driver that could be harmed by drilling: Commercial fishing is an $82 million industry, the report said, and recreational fishing brings in $2.5 billion.

Scientists also told the panel that the sensitive offshore environment could be harmed irreparably by drilling.

In recent years, public officials in the state have backed away from outright opposition to drilling, and instead mostly support protective measures to ensure its safety and accountability.

Gov. Beverly Perdue last week signed legislation that lifted the cap on damages that can be recovered from oil spills off the North Carolina coast.

A fortuitous naturally-occurring split in the Gulf’s Loop Current that happened in May saved North Carolina from the effects of the BP spill, said Rick Luettich, director of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences.

“That’s the biggest reason we haven’t seen any oil,” he said. “It really provided us with a great deal of insulation.”

Direct danger to Atlantic beaches has passed, he said, but the long-term damages — to marine habitats or migratory fish health, for instance — are yet to be known.

Rader is currently a member of the now-disbanded legislative offshore energy subcommittee’s successor, a governor’s scientific advisory panel studying offshore energy. One critical task the committee — which has met three times so far — is addressing is what lessons North Carolina can learn from the BP spill.

The reality, he said, is that no one knows who the winners or losers would be if the state pursues offshore drilling, and by extension, no one can say whether it would benefit the state.

“It’s either wishful thinking,” Rader said, “or politically-designed rhetoric.”

Luettich said he was a bit surprised that the public support for offshore drilling in North Carolina has bounced back so quickly.

“When you dodge a bullet, “ he said, “sometimes it makes people more cautious, and sometimes it makes you think, ‘Oh, that was an over-reaction.”

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/cmakin)

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