Huge issue ahead for North Carolina,
Decades from now, when school children in North Carolina look back on 2014, they might hear about the massive coal ash spill into the Dan River and subsequent legislation requiring cleanup of Duke Energy coal ash ponds.
And they might learn about the General Assembly's push to allow hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the method by which shale gas is extracted from underground, and the resulting industry created here.
But there's no doubt students will learn about offshore drilling if it's ultimately permitted in the waters off the Carolinas. Drilling for oil and gas off the coast has the potential to become an issue exponentially more important to North Carolina than coal ash or fracking, which recently sparked debates across the state and in the Legislature. Drilling could have significant and long-lasting effects on three traits that give North Carolina much of its identity – its economy, tourism industry and natural resources. Unfortunately, it pits them against each other.
Last week, in a moment of accord, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory applauded the decision of Democratic President Barack Obama to open the Eastern Seaboard for tests to determine how much oil and gas exist beneath the ocean floor. It was a move toward approving leases to oil companies to drill off the East Coast from Delaware to Florida. “This is an important step in the right direction toward more jobs for North Carolina and our country, as well as greater energy independence for our nation," McCrory said.
A successful and safe oil industry would boost the economy in North Carolina, including economically distressed areas in the eastern part of the state. According to one estimate, offshore drilling could bring 35,000 new jobs and $4 billion in new tax revenue to the Tar Heel state through 2030. The Associated Press, citing the oil industry, reported that Atlantic oil drilling could bring $23.5 billion annually to the U.S. economy. And, as McCrory said, it could lessen demand for foreign oil.
At the same time, an oil spill along the lines of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico could devastate the tourism and fishing industries along the coast, which the economies of beach towns and the livelihoods of many of their residents depend on, not to mention the ocean environment and its inhabitants.
The debate has begun long before any drilling begins. The search for oil and gas deposits will use air cannons to send loud noises through the water to map areas beneath the seabed. The pulses, environmentalists say, could harm tens of thousands of sea creatures, including endangered North Atlantic right whales. There are an estimated 500 of the whales alive today, and they rely on hearing for navigation. Federal rules will require companies doing the testing to try to avoid the whales and their migratory routes.
In perhaps the most obvious sign of the issue's contentious nature, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management received 120,000 comments as it developed rules for the seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean.
If you think fracking and coal ash are controversial, just wait.