November 25, 2015
Geof Koss, E&E reporter
Local government officials and business interests are seeing a groundswell of opposition to the Obama administration’s proposal to open parts of the outer continental shelf off the Atlantic Seaboard to oil and gas drilling, and they want everyone inside the Washington, D.C., Beltway to know it.
That’s the message a group of elected officials and small business owners brought to Capitol Hill, the Interior Department and the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality last week as the administration deliberates its controversial five-year offshore oil and gas leasing program, which would open waters from Virginia to Georgia to drilling (Greenwire, Jan. 27).
“It’s really a no-brainer for us,” Frank Knapp, president of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, said last week during a breakfast with reporters at the Washington headquarters of Oceana, an environmental group fighting the proposal.
He noted that the coastal region’s economy hinges on tens of thousands of tourism-related jobs that in turn depend on a healthy ocean ecosystem. Given that the hydraulic fracturing boom has propelled the United States to the top ranks of global oil and gas producers, Knapp said the push to open the Atlantic drilling isn’t worth the risks.
“What’s the rush?” he asked. “We’re swamped with oil.”
That view is shared along the South Carolina coast, where advocates say every coastal incorporated community has now adopted resolutions or statements opposing drilling. According to Oceana, 89 East Coast municipalities; more than 600 elected officials at the federal, state and local levels; and more than 300 businesses have come out against drilling, which they say threatens about 1.4 million jobs and the $95 billion that tourism contributes to the region’s economy.
The growing chorus of opposition has prompted some members of Congress to change their mind on drilling. Earlier this month, Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.) reversed course and came out against Atlantic drilling, although he still supports seismic testing of oil and gas reserves.
In doing so, Rice told a reporter for the Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., that he was heeding the call of local officials. “My title is representative,” the paper quotes him as saying. “I’m supposed to represent the people and if they don’t want it, I don’t want it.”
Rice’s reversal follows that of fellow South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford (R), who earlier this year switched gears and came out against drilling as well, in part because of local opposition, the Post and Courier reported.
Still, industry and many lawmakers have been highly critical of the administration’s proposed leasing plan, which they argue doesn’t go far enough (E&E Daily, April 16).
Advocates have more work to do when it comes to other regional lawmakers who favor drilling, including Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who embraced drilling in 2007 as governor, when he drafted the state’s first energy plan.
Kaine told Greenwire last week he hasn’t changed his mind on drilling — provided it comes with a greater sharing of federal revenues with coastal states — but acknowledged the growing opposition.
“It does seem like there is some changing of opinion on it in the Hampton Roads area, but there’s still some, I think, pretty strong support for it,” Kaine said, adding that he respects and listens to drilling opponents.
If there’s been an uptick in opposition to drilling among North Carolina residents, GOP Sen. Richard Burr said last week he hasn’t noticed.
“I support it, and I think most of the coastal towns support it with an appropriate royalty” to help coastal areas replenish beaches and dunes and upgrade intercoastal waterways, Burr told Greenwire, emphasizing that, like Kaine, his support “absolutely” depends on greater revenue-sharing.
Burr is seeking a third term in 2016, and it isn’t yet clear how vigorous a challenge he’ll have on his hands.
Advocates say opposition in North Carolina to drilling runs deep as well, but it’s not absolute. Carteret County’s Board of Commissioners adopted a resolution in support of drilling, bucking other local governments, reportedWCTI-TV.
But for at least one North Carolina elected official, support for opening coastal waters to drilling may have cost him his political career. Kure Beach residents this month voted Mayor Dean Lambeth out of office in a race where drilling was a major factor.
Mayor-elect Emilie Swearingen, who joined drilling opponents at last week’s fly-in, said Lambeth’s support for drilling was out of step with the voters of this small coastal town on a spit of land in southern North Carolina.
“We have ‘no drill’ signs all over this town,” Swearingen said by phone yesterday.
In a meeting that included Interior Department chief of staff Tommy Beaudreau — a former head of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management — as well as BOEM’s current director, Abigail Ross Hopper, Swearingen said drilling critics felt like “they were open to hearing from us.”
Although the public comment period on the five-year plan closed earlier this year, Swearingen said Interior officials encouraged drilling critics to continue to contact the department with their concerns.
BOEM spokeswoman Connie Gillette yesterday noted there are multiple opportunities for residents to weigh in on the plans.
The department is currently developing the proposed program and a draft programmatic environmental impact statement for the proposed areas. “We expect to publish those documents in early 2016 and will encourage public participation in that next step which will include comment periods and public meetings in areas included in the Proposed Program,” Gillette wrote in an email, adding that the whole process generally takes two-and-a-half to three years to complete.
Matt Price, a developer in the tiny Outer Banks hamlet of Duck, N.C., said last week’s meetings seemed to make an impression on the federal officials and staff they met with.
“We were really able to put a face on what’s at stake to some of these people,” he said by phone yesterday.
During a meeting with Council on Environmental Quality staff, Price said, drilling critics were complimented on their advocacy.
“They kind of point-blank said we were doing a good job getting the grass-roots opposition level voice to be heard,” he said.