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Companies, Lawmakers Eye N.C. Coast For Oil

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RALEIGH, N.C. — One geology professor in South Carolina said oil reserves could run dry in 30 years, and alternatives are sparking chatter in Washington.

North Carolina could be part of the solution, some experts and lawmakers said.

Oil companies have long eyed the N.C. coast.

Twenty years ago, a group of them paid the federal government $296 million for the opportunity to look off the coast before lawmakers prevented that from happening. If Congress lifts a temporary ban on off-shore drilling for coastal states, expect some debate to emerge in North Carolina.

Some experts said the chance of finding either oil or natural gas off the N.C. coast is one in seven. Finding something economically worthwhile is about one in 40. Plus, there is a spot about 30 miles off the coast of the point at Cape Hatteras where natural gas or oil may exist below the ocean floor.

So the question about oil off the N.C. coast: Is it an economic gold mine or a disaster waiting to happen?

N.C. Petroleum Council's Bill Weatherspoon said oil companies should have the right to explore the coast for oil.

If they find something, it means money in the state's pocket and a domestic energy source the country needs, he said.

"North Carolina is totally dependant on the Gulf for oil and gas," he said. "At some point, we need to get a reality check, and we need to develop the energy we're going to need."

Doug Rader, a scientist with Environmental Defense, disagreed.

He said the ocean floor off the coast near Cape Hatteras is too fragile and the rare marine life would be disrupted.

Plus, he said, production of any kind is an environmental disaster waiting to happen given North Carolina's history of hurricanes.

If the oil companies do find something, he said, it would also change the face of the coastline "from a tourist economy to an industrial economy."

"Just look at coastal Louisiana," Rader added. "There are some high-end beach homes, but there's a tremendous investment in oil and gas infrastructure."

The state may not have much input. The federal government would likely control the waters that far off shore.

"The state has the right to comment," N.C. State marine sciences professor Neal Blair said.

He attended many community meetings when Chevron was interested in the waters off the coast a decade ago, he said.

Blair said oil companies would be interested in that spot off Hatteras, even if it's just a roll of the dice.

"The ingredients are all there. That there might be something, you don't know until you look," he said. "The reason it's so controversial in North Carolina is that both the costs and benefits are unknown."

All of North Carolina's representatives in Congress said they oppose any effort to drill off the coast of North Carolina.

A discussion in Congress also is spotlighting the issue of drilling off the coasts of Alaska and Florida. The House of Representatives may vote on that issue as early as next week.


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