Drilling for Answers

As this story was going to press, news of the May 19 oil spill off the California coast was reaching Associated Press sources. Refugio State Beach shoreline (near Santa Barbara) was hit with 21,000 gallons of oil creating a nine-mile slick in the Pacific Ocean. The affected area is described as 21 miles of “scenic coastline dotted with state-run beaches that are popular with campers.” A spokesperson in Santa Barbara said that such a spill was inevitable with coastal oil development despite assurances from the pipeline company that such a spill was “extremely unlikely.”  Local news is reporting that most beaches are now open; however, designated clean-up areas marked with yellow tape still remain where public and press are not allowed. The spill occurred just days before the popular tourist season opened on Memorial Day weekend. – ed.

Closer to Home

From town officials to high school students, business owners to young children, residents of the Outer Banks crammed into the ballroom of the Comfort Inn in Kill Devil Hills to hear the speakers at the March 16 press conference. Many of them wore blue in support of the ocean.


Aerial view of oil spill off Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County. Photo courtesy L.A. Times.

Executive Director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau Lee Nettles took the podium, saying, “It’s pretty warm in here.” He then pointed to a photograph of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf in April, 2010. “It’s nothing compared to the oil rig fire over there.”

The press conference and neighboring public scoping meeting at the Ramada Inn, held by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), came in wake of the Obama administration’s January 17 proposal for oil exploration and offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. Under the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, the U.S. Department of the Interior has begun the process to allow lease sales 50 miles off the coast in the states of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. These offshore areas are estimated to contain significant quantities of oil and gas.

Why Here?

North Carolina has more than 64 million acres of federal Outer Continental Shelf, more than any state on the East Coast. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory supports offshore drilling in our state under the condition of revenue sharing, which stipulates that some profits of the operation would remain in North Carolina. He believes offshore drilling will create thousands of jobs and lead to greater independence and economic prosperity in both the state and the country.

The East Coast has never been home to offshore drilling. A federal moratorium was enacted following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989 and re-enacted following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf Coast in 2010.

In his April 15 testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, Governor McCrory stated that there was widespread support across North Carolina for offshore oil and gas exploration and development. “We share a passion for our clean water, fishing industry, and the recreational use of our coastal resources. We would not be advocating for offshore energy development if we felt we were compromising these invaluable treasures,” said McCrory.

Contradicting those statements, however, Governor McCrory has urged government officials to decrease the 50-mile buffer to 30 miles from shore. He believes the existing wider buffer would make 40 percent of the state’s potential oil and gas resources unobtainable.

Connie Gillette, Media Relations at BOEM, says it is not possible to decrease the buffer without restarting the entire public and environmental review process. This would likely set back the leasing plan by several years.


Over 400 OBX lovers rallied against offshore oil drilling during the Hands Across the Sand event on March 16. Photo courtesy theOBXBeachBum.

Local Involvement

It is the task of BOEM to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to examine the direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of oil and gas activities in the Atlantic. As a part of this process, BOEM is required by the National Environmental Policy Act to hold meetings in states that are being considered for offshore drilling. The meetings are public and provide an opportunity to learn more about the process and to submit comments.

Hosting a BOEM meeting on the Outer Banks was not originally planned, but after receiving more than 40 letters from concerned residents and homeowners requesting an opportunity to be included, BOEM scheduled the March 16 meeting in Kill Devil Hills. Gillette said, “That was the largest public meeting that BOEM has held. We were thrilled because we love it when people come out.”

According to Gillette, a total of 670 people submitted comments at the meeting. That is 500-plus more than the public meeting in Norfolk and 250-plus more than Wilmington. In terms of general comments on the Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, BOEM had received more than 472,000 as of March 25.

Where We Stand

The overwhelming response from the Outer Banks community has been against offshore drilling. At the March 16 meeting, Nettles reminded attendees that the Dare County Tourism Board has expressed its strong opposition to offshore drilling, not only now but in 2005, 2009, and 2014. Nettles stated that one in three Dare County residents is employed in a travel and tourism related job.

That is 11,750 people in Dare County alone that rely on tourism every day. A 2014 study by the University of Wyoming, titled Economic and Environmental Impacts of Oil and Gas Development Offshore in The Delmarva, Carolinas, and Georgia, released three projections – low, medium, and high – for revenue from offshore drilling in North Carolina. Projections from the Tourism Board show that today’s revenue from tourism meets or exceeds the low or mid-level projections for oil and gas 21 years from now.

 “One of the things that was concerning to us looking at the oil and gas research was just how much variation there is and how wildly the projections vary from low to medium to high,” Nettles said. “It’s a lot of ‘what ifs’ and unanswered questions, but in the meantime we are threatening our livelihood and way of life.”

According to Nettles, the Dare County tourism industry generated an economic impact of $953 million in 2013. There is widespread concern in Dare County that the revenue generated from offshore drilling will not come back to North Carolina. Nettles said, “It remains to be seen what the federal revenue sharing would look like. At this point, there is no agreement on revenue sharing.”

Other speakers at the meeting included mayors from three towns, business owners, high school students, and the co-chairs of the Surfrider Foundation, Outer Banks chapter.


Photo courtesy nottheanswernc.org

The Surfrider Foundation is a nonprofit environmental group dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans, waves, and beaches. The local chapter was founded in 1993 and has focused its efforts on issues of water quality and offshore energy.

Surfrider unequivocally opposes any offshore oil or gas drilling along North Carolina’s coast. They believe it would be more beneficial and responsible to pursue renewable energy through solar, wind, and biomass energy production projects from organizations such as NC GreenPower. In addition, Surfrider says an oil spill would endanger our offshore fisheries, coastlines, and public health, and destroy our quality of life and status as a premiere tourist destination.

Matt Walker, co-chair of the Outer Banks chapter, said of our shorelines and clean ocean, “We have a printing press when it comes to money. It literally washes up on our beaches all summer long, and that is up and down the coast. Nobody in their right mind would gamble an economy that we have in terms of our tourism.”

Walker is concerned that the majority of jobs created by the oil and gas industry will go to workers from other places, not North Carolinians. He said, “Why are we gambling existing North Carolina jobs and revenue to an industry that doesn’t even have a foothold? All the people who are making the decisions don’t have to worry about this. They will still wake up in the morning and have a job and get a paycheck. Everybody on this beach, if there is an oil spill, has to worry about how they are going to make rent tomorrow.”

The Surfrider website makes the point that the Outer Banks is prone to high winds, storms, and strong currents, all of which could be hazardous to oil platforms and increase the likelihood of oil spills.

Also opposed to offshore drilling is Not the Answer NC. This organization sheds light on the thousands of Outer Banks residents who rely on the tourism industry to survive. Their headlines read, “Oil jobs are estimates. Our jobs are real.” The group has held many events at local businesses in the last few months in which locals are photographed holding up dry erase boards stating their careers on the Outer Banks. Messages such as “My watersports business relies on clean water” and “I fish 4 a living” show the large number of residents who work in the tourism industry and give a face to the Not the Answer NC campaign. Some children have been photographed with wishes for a clean ocean; one dry erase board reads, “Oceans are blue not black.”


While major disasters such as the BP Gulf Coast spill are covered in round-the-clock cycles of international media, there are daily spills that do not make the 6 o’clock news. According to Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network, the Coast Guard’s National Response Center receives approximately 1,500 oil spill notifications from Louisiana alone each year, with an average volume of 330,000 gallons spilled per year. One well that is 11 miles off of Louisiana’s coast has been leaking since 2004 creating a constant rainbow slick that stretches across the water for at least 10 to 15 miles. Nothing that the industry or government has attempted over the last 10 years has been successful in stemming the flow.

Seismic Science

Another public concern is that the seismic testing associated with oil and gas exploration could harm the marine life in our waters. Seismic surveying is an exploration method that uses pulses of sound to map the earth’s crust. At timed intervals, ships towing airguns release pulses that are analyzed as they rebound off layers of rock and sediment beneath the ocean floor. The survey produces three-dimensional maps that determine optimal places to drill for oil and gas.

There is no proof that seismic surveying directly correlates with death of marine life; however, there have been many instances in which those methods aligned with a change in behavior of marine life, and in some cases, climbing mortality rates. Some believe the sounds of seismic testing, which can be between 200 and 300 decibels, harm marine life such as whales and dolphins whose survival is dependent on being able to communicate and navigate through sound. Many marine mammals use sound to locate food and mates and to keep track of their young. There are also worries that fish will change their migration patterns, resulting in changes not only to our fishing economy but to those of other states on the East Coast. One easy comparison that opponents will suggest are the admonishments from aquarium personnel asking visitors not to tap on the walls of fish tanks. As for the human ear, seismic testing should not be audible from our coast, claim the surveyors.

Another group that has formed as a result of the offshore drilling proposal is Kids Against Offshore Drilling. An unnamed, local 10-year old has taken to the Internet to seek the help of children across America. Her website asks the country’s youth to research offshore drilling and write to politicians to encourage cleaner energy sources and reduced energy consumption. Her plea reads, “Our generation is going to be the one to deal with decisions that are made now. Please help, before it’s too late.”

By The Numbers – The BP Gulf Coast Spill of 2010

The BP Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010 is recognized as the worst oil spill in U.S. history and is still adversely affecting the tourism and fishing industries. Mutations such as shrimp with missing eyes and fish with oozing sores and lesions are still a common sight for fishermen now, a full five years later. Following are a few statistics from that oil spill:
•     Almost 206 million gallons of oil were spilled into Gulf waters.
•     11 platform workers died in the oilrig explosion and resulting fire; 17 were injured.
•     It took 87 days to put a cap on the gushing oil.
•    In total, approximately 16,000 miles of coastline were affected in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.
•    It is unknown exactly how many land and marine creatures were affected by the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. However, approximately 8,000 animals were found dead within six months of the spill.

Alternative Solutions

In terms of alternative energy production, wind power is the most commonly heard solution for the Outer Banks due to our near-constant winds. Walker is one of many voices that believe drilling for oil is a short-term solution. He said, “… put up a windmill, and we will have energy from here to eternity.”

A 2015 study conducted by the ocean advocacy group, Oceana states that every state on the East Coast could meet their energy needs with existing wind, solar, and water-generated energy. The study, titled Offshore Drilling by the Numbers, An Economic Analysis of Offshore Drilling and Wind Energy in the Atlantic, found that offshore wind would produce twice the number of jobs and twice the amount of energy as offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.

Nettles says the Tourism Board would ask questions about any alternative forms of energy with the potential to impact Outer Banks residents and the tourism industry. In the case of wind-generated energy, he would want to know the distance between the windmills and shore and also where the power would come ashore.

Interested Parties

As for where things stand for North Carolina’s waters, a total of eight petroleum companies have submitted requests for Geological and Geophysical permits for the Atlantic. The NC Division of Coastal Management approved two consistency submissions from Spectrum Geo, Inc. and GX Technology for seismic surveying off North Carolina’s coast. Spectrum’s certification letter states, “2D seismic survey will be conducted 24 hours per day, 7 days per week… Survey activities are planned for the second quarter of 2015.” While those statements indicate survey operations begin July 2015, Gillette says that no oil companies have received federal approval for surveying and would not until after the release of the EIS in early 2016.

In the meantime, those who have opinions for or against offshore oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic can contact their state politicians to make comments. ♦

Lexi Holian is a freelance writer and lifelong resident of the Outer Banks. When not writing, she can be found at the beach with a book in hand.

  • Lisa Loy

    Well done! Thorough, educational, a clear description of a murky threat.

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