Despite a low profile, offshore drilling supporters make their case
They don’t hold rallies or gather in large numbers. Their position is at odds with virtually every local elected official — including the Dare County Commissioners, town mayors and the county’s two new representatives in the General Assembly. And, when the Sentinel went looking to interview local people representing that point of view, it wasn’t a particularly easy task.
But there are people — and a substantial quantity of them, according to several polls — who support seismic testing and offshore energy drilling in the waters off North Carolina. That approach, pushed by the Trump Administration, has generated a major backlash among environmental activists and local officials. And, while there seems to be a notable “enthusiasm gap” between the anti-drilling and pro-drilling forces, those backing offshore drilling accuse their opponents of misleading the public on the issue.
John Droz, Jr., a Morehead City-based physicist and founder of the Alliance for Wise Energy Decisions, gave a presentation last year to the Dare Commissioners advocating for seismic surveys and the possibility of drilling off the state’s coast. He characterizes the anti-drilling forces as "a religious movement, based on the Book of Propaganda, being boisterously advanced by a vocal minority. The bottom line here is that the anti-fossil fuel campaign is at its heart, anti-American."
Conservative activist Mattie Lawson, a 2014 Republican candidate for the District 6 seat in the N.C. House of Representatives, told the Sentinel that, "Fossil fuel is the most practical answer to our long-term security and energy needs." And, like Droz, she says the current efforts to thwart plans for seismic testing are the handiwork of “fear-mongering environmentalists.”
While everyone may not feel as strongly on the subject as Droz and Lawson, there is some evidence of significant public support for offshore drilling.
A 2015 Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey of residents of eight North Carolina coastal counties found a mixed verdict, with 42% of all respondents saying they favored “drilling for oil and natural gas off the N.C. coast,” while 46% said they opposed it.
There were obvious gender and ideological divides on that question. Only 33 percent of women favored drilling, compared with 51 percent of the men surveyed, while 60 percent of Democrats opposed it, compared with 29 percent of Republicans.
About a year ago, the Civitas Institute released numbers showing that, statewide, 47% of the respondents opposed offshore drilling and 42% supported it. But when you narrowed the sample of responses to people in northeastern North Carolina, 50% voiced support for offshore drilling, compared with 42% opposing it.
A statewide poll by High Point University last February showed somewhat more opposition to offshore drilling, with 53% opposing and 39% supporting Trump Administration efforts to open up the North Carolina coast to offshore drilling.
Regardless of what the polls show, in recent years it has been the anti-drilling movement that has dominated the local debate and public discourse.
In March 2015, a crowd of 300 jammed into the Comfort Inn adjacent to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) hearing at the Ramada Plaza to protest offshore energy exploration. In April of that year, the Dare Board of Commissioners unanimously affirmed its opposition to drilling, something it had done on three prior occasions.
That May, an estimated 300 Outer Banks residents locked hands on the beach at Nags Head to make a silent statement about their opposition to offshore drilling. A few months later, on Aug. 28, dozens of protestors gathered in Manteo to demonstrate across the street from the building where Governor Pat McCrory, a supporter of offshore drilling, was holding a fundraiser.
Last February, the "Rally to Raleigh" event drew more than 200 people from coastal North Carolina, including a bus load of people from the Outer Banks, to a BOEM meeting in Raleigh addressing the new Trump Administration plan for expanded offshore drilling.
The 2018 midterm election cycle saw the two pro-drilling legislators representing Dare County — State Representative Beverly Boswell and State Senator Bill Cook — replaced by anti-drilling lawmakers. Cook decided not to seek another term and his seat was captured by State Representative Bob Steinburg, while Boswell was defeated by Currituck Commissioners Chairman Bobby Hanig in the GOP primary.
Both Hanig and Steinburg are on record opposing offshore drilling. In fact, no one elected in Dare County to a county or state office in the last election held a position supporting offshore drilling. And, in conveying the prevalent political message on the subject while delivering his “State of the County” address on Jan. 16, Dare Commissioners Chairman Bob Woodard declared, in no uncertain terms, that, "I’ll fight [offshore drilling] 'till the cows come home.”
In their recent interviews with the Sentinel, those favoring offshore drilling focused much of their remarks on the narrower issue of seismic testing, a battleground since late November when the Trump Administration greenlighted permits to conduct that testing in the Atlantic. The process, a precursor to offshore drilling, is controversial because of widespread fears that the seismic airgun blasts can harm marine life.
"There is a huge problem with fear-mongering environmentalists insisting the topic at hand is offshore drilling, when in fact it is just the data-gathering step of offshore seismic surveys,” said Lawson. “An uneducated public will respond to emotional arguments."
Droz added that, "The problem here is this: How many OBX citizens are experts regarding seismic surveys?" Stating that "the number is likely to be almost zero," he added that, "You’ll have no trouble getting many people to express their opinions, but that’s like asking OBX citizens what they think about black holes."
For his part, Bath resident William Zachman, who has performed feasibility studies on alternative energy projects, was eager to give a full-throated endorsement of offshore drilling itself, saying that, “I have been very active in economic development in eastern North Carolina for many years. Petroleum production offers an industry of such scale as to vitalize all twenty coastal counties like few other industries could."
“The current technology for offshore oil production,” he added, “is proven extremely safe."