Coastal cities rising up against Atlantic offshore drilling plans

WASHINGTON — As the Obama administration prepares to open the Atlantic Ocean to oil and gas drilling for the first time in decades, the coast is in rebellion.

Governments in more than 70 cities and counties in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida have passed resolutions opposing oil exploration or drilling off their coasts, pushing the president to reverse course and keep drilling rigs from the Eastern seaboard.

The latest protest against Obama's plan came from the seaside town of Swansboro, N.C., which passed a resolution last week opposing offshore drilling.

"The risks are very real," said Frank Tursi, newly elected to the town's board of commissioners.

Obama's January announcement that he is proposing a drilling lease sale in the Atlantic has ignited a furious debate over energy, jobs and the environment, with governors of East Coast states eager for development but many coastal towns afraid of the potential impact on tourism and fishing.

Drilling opponents along the Atlantic coast feel emboldened by Obama's decision last month to cancel drilling lease sales far to the north in the Arctic Ocean. They see a potential opening as the president becomes more assertive on environmental issues as he prepares to leave office after next year's election.

"For the life of me I just can't understand why this is even an issue. Tourism generates so much money to the state, it's basically the lifeblood of eastern North Carolina," said Matt Price, a real estate developer in North Carolina's Outer Banks. "I doubt people want to come to a place where oil washed up on the beaches or there's dead sea life from seismic testing."


Coastal drilling opponents are fighting an uphill battle, though — against their own governors and senators who support offshore drilling and would raise hell if Obama abandoned the plan. Republican North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory is pressing for the state to get a share of the federal money from offshore energy production, telling Congress this year that there is "widespread support" in North Carolina for offshore drilling.

"Governor McCrory continues to support a multi-faceted energy strategy that will create jobs and help with our country's energy independence," McCrory spokesman Graham Wilson said this past week. "The governor's first goal is to find out what resources are available in a safe, environmentally responsible way."

Obama has opened a huge area of the Atlantic, from Delaware to central Florida, for seismic exploration for oil and natural gas. Those tests, in which seismic cannons repeatedly blast as loud as a howitzer under the sea, could begin as soon as the spring once federal permits are issued.

It's not clear how much oil and gas there is off the Eastern seaboard and the tests are meant to change that. The seismic cannons will blast compressed air underwater, sending sound waves to the bottom of the ocean that produce echoes to be used by industry to map oil and gas deposits.

Oil companies will use the data to decide whether to bid on Atlantic drilling leases. The president proposes a 2021 drilling lease sale off the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia, areas long closed to fossil fuel development. Governors of all those states support the drilling.

All major coastal cities in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia are against the drilling plan, though — with resolutions of opposition from Wilmington, N.C., Myrtle Beach, S.C., Charleston, S.C., Hilton Head Island, S.C., Savannah, Ga., and dozens of smaller towns. Similar resolutions have been passed by cities in Florida, Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware.

"Every coastal municipality in South Carolina is now on board (with the opposition)," Billy Keyserling, mayor of Beaufort, S.C., said at a recent meeting in Washington organized by the environmental group Oceana.

Keyserling said the U.S. is already has a glut of cheap oil from the fracking boom. "We don't need to take these kinds of risks."

U.S. Reps. Mark Sanford and Tom Rice, Republicans who represent the South Carolina coast, also oppose Atlantic offshore drilling, as does Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. All four U.S. senators from North and South Carolina support drilling, though, as does Republican South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

"Governor Haley believes offshore exploration should be done in a way that protects, and never compromises, our environment, our ports and tourism industry," said Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams. "But as she has worked with members of the congressional delegation and the General Assembly on this critical economic development issue, she's also been clear: Exploring offshore for energy is critical to our future because it means jobs, energy independence from other countries and security for our state."

Not everyone along the Carolina coast is opposed to drilling. Carteret County, N.C., which is between Wilmington and the Outer Banks, bucked the anti-drilling tide this month with a resolution in support of McCrory's push for oil and gas exploration off the state's coast.

Swansboro, N.C., Commissioner Jim Allen also supports offshore drilling, although his fellow town commissioners outvoted him 3-1 on the issue.

"I think if we've got gas or oil out there then I don't see anything wrong with us drilling for it," Allen said in an interview. "I am all for doing anything to create jobs."

Allen lost his re-election race this month. So did Dean Lambeth, mayor of Kure Beach, N.C., who drew hundreds of protesters when he supported oil and gas exploration last year.

"A lot of my campaign was based on opposing seismic testing and offshore oil," said Emilie Swearingen, who defeated Lambeth in the mayor's race. "We have dozens and dozens and dozens of 'do not drill' signs all over our town."

Swearingen said the anti-drilling resolutions prove that coastal opposition is strong and now it is a matter of convincing the rest of North Carolina.

"We need to get the word out to the Piedmont and the mountains," she said.

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Sean Cockerham

Sean Cockerham is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He also covered Alaska issues for McClatchy Newspapers based in Washington, D.C.