JACKSONVILLE – State Environmental Secretary Michael Regan continued to reiterate his message this week that Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration has pledged to protect the state’s coastal economy and environment from offshore drilling and seismic testing.
Regan, who heads the Department of Environmental Quality, met Tuesday with about a dozen Onslow county officials and leaders for an offshore drilling listening session, organized by DEQ, at the Onslow County Government Center. He also met Wednesday with local leaders in Wilmington for an offshore drilling listening session and in February in Kill Devil Hills and Ocracoke with the public, elected officials and leaders, all to address concerns and questions about the Trump administration’s draft National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, or National OCS Program, for 2019-2024.
“Right now, we’re in the midst of public comment and I hope that each and every one of you will take advantage of the public comment period and leverage your voices,” Regan told the Onslow County officials in attendance.
Public comment deadline for the National OCS Program is Friday.
“Gov. Cooper, Attorney General Josh Stein and I have made it clear from the very beginning, from the onset, that offshore drilling threatens our coastal economy and our environment, yet it offers very little benefit to North Carolina directly,” Regan said, adding that coastal tourism generates about $3 billion annually, supports more than 30,000 jobs and commercial fishing brings in hundreds of millions of dollars of income. “So, we can’t afford, in my opinion and the opinion of the governor, to endanger our economy and our environment.”
Regan explained that he was there to listen. “I’m here to do something that the Trump administration has decided not to do,” he said, which is to go to the communities and talk with citizens, elected officials and business leaders about “what offshore drilling and seismic testing could potentially mean for the economy and the environment of North Carolina.”
Dan Tuman, mayor of North Topsail Beach, was among those who spoke, asking about the Cooper administration’s recent conversations with Interior Secretary Zinke.
Regan replied that the governor made it clear to Zinke that he saw no benefit to the state in the plan.
“We walked Secretary Zinke through all of our concerns, many of those concerns mirrored the concerns expressed by Florida, which at the time there was some conversation that that state would be exempt,” he said. “Secretary Zinke indicated that Florida was not exempt and would have to go through the process, so our goal was to make sure that we highlighted the concerns of offshore drilling and seismic testing off of our coast.”
Regan said that Zinke appeared receptive at the time to their concerns and to their requests for additional time for public comment meetings on the coast, rather than the lone North Carolina session held Feb. 26 in Raleigh. Regan continued that they left the meeting feeling that the request would be honored but, “It appears that time is running out and that request will not be honored.”
Tuman also asked about national interests, such as President Donald Trump’s concerns about global markets, national security and energy independence.
Regan answered that the governor strongly supports national security and energy independence but the amount of offshore gas and oil that potentially exists off the coast here is too little to affect the economy or national security.
“What you actually do is lessen North Carolina’s competitiveness on the global stage by endangering our coastal economy,” Regan said. “What we would say is that a danger to our economy is more important, just as important, in terms of national security than the few benefits that oil might present.”
Regan said Zinke had agreed that just because the administration thinks offshore drilling is a good idea, it’s not necessarily a good idea everywhere.
“I’ll quote Secretary Zinke by stating that he indicated that he is a small-government Republican who doesn’t believe that the federal government should tell state and local what they should do with their resources, so we take him at his word,” Regan said.
Mark Price, one of three Onslow County commissioners at the meeting, asked why the Cooper administration was opposed to seismic exploration as a first step to determine if there are significant reserves of oil and natural gas off the North Carolina coast.
Regan explained that seismic testing is “a very intrusive process” and too risky. “Seismic testing can cause a lot of harmful damage to our ecosystem,” he said.
Those risks outweigh any potential for economic gain in the state. Currently, there’s no guarantee that if offshore oil and gas were discovered off the North Carolina coast that the state would get a share of any royalties or other direct economic gain.
“So, we’re in a position where we have to incur all of the risk, but it doesn’t look or appear that we would receive any benefits if there were any to be had,” Regan said.
Regan explained that researchers have identified an area that’s 30 to 50 miles off the coast where they think petroleum reserves may be, but North Carolina lacks the infrastructure already in place in other states. But more importantly, the risks to coastal resources are too great.
He added that when you look at Deepwater Horizon or any kind of offshore drilling catastrophe, the state would probably never recover from that kind of disaster.
“We’re very rich in resources and we have lots of industries that rely on those resources, lots of families and businesses that have been passed down for generations. This is a significant transaction cost that I am not comfortable with, and the governor is not comfortable with, putting North Carolina’s economic future and environmental future at stake.”
Walter Yurek, a North Topsail Beach alderman, asked about the end users for any oil produced. Regan replied that it would be sold on the international market, which again could be risky business with little if any benefit to the state.
“This is not a good deal for North Carolina,” Regan said.
Onslow County Commissioner Royce Bennett cited a 2013 North Carolina State University study by Mike Walden that estimates offshore oil would benefit North Carolina to the tune of $1.9 billion and 17,000 employees, and produce $160 million in revenue for the state, versus potential environmental costs of about $92 million a year.
“That’s a pretty significant positive impact,” Bennett said.
Regan said that he saw the study but disagreed with its assumptions.
“That’s playing Russian roulette with all of the people along the coast, with the assumption that there is a price tag on our precious coast and our precious natural resources. So, I disagree with the assumptions there but I also disagree with the premise that we can make enough money to repair any potential damage,” Regan said.
Onslow County Commissioner Paul Buchanan agreed that protecting the state’s coast was key. He noted that tourism was vital to the coastal economy and added that as a former scuba diver, he had visited wrecks that are part of the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” off Morehead City.
“We can’t afford for those wrecks to be devastated by any type of drilling,” Buchanan said. “I don’t think seismic will help it either. I’m totally against it. We have to protect our coast.”
Regan said a coalition of coastal governors, local officials and business interests could be effective in influencing senators and representatives in Washington.
“This is what we’re saying up and down the coast: This is a bipartisan issue. There’s a unified voice that the congressional representatives at the federal level need to hear,” he said. “There’s strength in you all’s voices, so we’ve been asking all the chambers, all the individual citizens and publicly elected officials to please reach out directly to our federally elected officials and just convey from your individual perspectives why this is a bad idea. I think the diversity of voices and experiences will not fall on deaf ears.”
Regan said he was optimistic and that the fight was “far from over.” Having entire coastal communities engaged in the process was important because there’s a lot at stake, he said.
“It’s important that they not only hear from the elected officials in Raleigh but from those who would be impacted most by offshore drilling and seismic testing,” Regan said. “We encourage all North Carolina citizens to provide comments to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management that comment period ends March 9, so get those so get those comments in.”