Raleigh, N.C. — Federal regulators again want to hear what North Carolinians think about allowing oil and gas drilling off the state's coast.
Last year, former President Barack Obama's administration adopted a five-year energy plan that excluded drilling off the East Coast. But President Donald Trump has said he wants to see more offshore energy development, so his administration has tossed aside the 2016 plan and is starting over.
As part of that process, a public hearing was held Monday night in Wilmington, and others are set for Morehead City on Wednesday and Manteo on Thursday.
Gov. Roy Cooper said last month that he's opposed to opening the coast to offshore exploration and drilling, saying he doesn't think the risk to the state's coastal tourism and commercial fishing industries of a major oil spill are worth the limited revenue North Carolina would receive from the move.
"In some quarters of the Gulf Coast, they're still trying to recover from the impact of Deepwater Horizon," said Margaret Lillard, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Sierra Club, referring to the 2010 BP oil spill from that fouled large swaths of shoreline from Louisiana to Florida.
"North Carolina's coastal economy is based primarily on tourism and on fishing, commercial and recreational. They've got to have a clean environment," Lillard said.
Advocates for the oil and gas industry says those fears are overblown, maintaining such disasters are rare. They say drilling off the coast could create good-paying jobs in counties where they're badly needed.
"Embracing our nation’s offshore energy potential would bring enormous benefits to North Carolina," said David McGowan, executive director of the North Carolina Petroleum Council. "Our state is uniquely positioned to add thousands of additional jobs and increase local revenue through safe and environmentally responsible offshore energy development. The industry has a long history of safe offshore operations, which can safely coexist with our tourism and fishing industries while providing much needed diversity for local economies."
"A sensible, robust energy policy will provide a much needed boost at a time when North Carolina’s middle class is struggling," added Michael Whatley, executive vice president of the Consumer Energy Alliance. "An all-of-the-above approach, which includes offshore energy development, will create tens of thousands of quality, living-wage jobs and generate billions of dollars for the state’s economy."
But Lillard said tourism and fishing support far more jobs in North Carolina than offshore drilling would ever create. More than 30 North Carolina communities have officially voiced opposition to offshore drilling, she noted, and a recent survey by Public Policy Polling found that seven out of 10 people in the state are concerned by the prospect of offshore drilling.
"That's people across the state who recognize the price that we would all pay in North Carolina if we were to have offshore drilling and something were to go wrong," Lillard said. "It's just not worth the potential impact."
Anyone who wants to register his or her opinion on the issue but cannot make one of the three public hearings can submit comments in writing by Aug. 15 to Timothy Webster, 217 W. Jones St., 1601 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1601 or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. All comments will be forwarded to the U.S. Department of Interior.