The battle has only just begun to keep oil rigs out of Atlantic coastal waters. Once again, the federal government is threatening to open more of our coastline to offshore drilling – this time from Virginia to the Florida-Georgia line. Since 2010 the United States has gone from a potential lease site in Virginia, to a moratorium on new leases, and now to opening up areas of our coast that haven’t been considered since the oil embargo of the 1970’s. The idea of new leases is especially troubling since Congress has still been unable to pass any far-reaching safety improvements for offshore oil since the BP Deepwater Horizon, and the Department of the Interior has only implemented some reforms on drilling operations.
In January 2015 the Department of Interior released a draft of their 5-year leasing plan. The Bureau of Energy Management (BOEM), formerly the Mineral Management Service, is the agency that oversees offshore energy development. In accordance with the Outer Continental Shelf Act (OCS), a law originally passed in 1953, BOEM is tasked with setting leasing schedules in five year increments. Its most recent plan would allow for leasing of offshore sites beginning in 2017 and going through 2022. What’s unique about this announcement is that these 5-year leasing plans had mostly excluded the Atlantic region from leasing.
Although This is not the first time North Carolina has faced this issue. Some residents can still recall effectively defeating another drilling proposal from Mobil Oil in the 1980s. It was public opposition along with the support of Governor Jim Martin, that allowed North Carolina to prevent Mobil from drilling near the Outer Banks. Times have changed though, and despite continued public opposition to the issue, the elected officials in North Carolina are not trying to prevent the drilling. In fact, they are encouraging the idea of offshore oil in North Carolina.
A public comment period began following BOEM’s lease proposal release. Two, nearly simultaneous, public comment periods started around the same time. One was asking for public comments on the draft report that was released. These were general comments about on whether or not these leases were a good idea for the area. The other concurrent comment period focused on the environmental impacts of offshore drilling.
BOEM held these hearings back in February and March of 2015. North Carolina, with the longest coastline of any of the states being considered, was the only state that was awarded two public hearings. NC was only scheduled for one meeting, but the public outcry against offshore development was so overwhelming, BOEM agreed to add a second hearing. The first hearing in Wilmington brought out over 400 people. The second, held in the Outer Banks, was even larger with nearly 700 people showing up to show their opposition to dirty energy development of their coast. Two hundred people spoke out against offshore oil at these meetings. Thousands of others wrote letters, signed petitions, and left comments on regulations.gov.
Now that each of the comment periods have ended, the next step in the leasing process has begun. BOEM must consider the comments it received from the two comment different focus areas and make adjustments to their initial leasing plan. Occurring simultaneously is the drafting of a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS). The PEIS must also consider the public comments while also evaluating how drilling will affect fisheries, migration patterns of animals, air/water quality, land subsidence, or oil seepage. The PEIS must also possible strategies to manage those impacts should drilling be authorized.
It will likely be March before the next drafts are released. There is a window of opportunity that needs to be used to galvanize strategies to combat the sale of offshore drilling leases while awaiting the release of the reports. Local citizens, churches, nonprofits, and elected officials need to act. We all must spread the word about the potential for dirty energy off the coast, educate their neighbors on the risks, and rally together in an effort to prevent future oil development in the Atlantic.
When the revised leasing draft and the PEIS are released, another round of public comment periods will commence. Increasing what was already an incredible turnout will be key. Delivering a strong and cohesive message to BOEM and NC leadership will ensure they understand that offshore drilling in North Carolina is not an option.
North Carolina successfully defeated offshore oil once before. As long the momentum continues to build, there is no doubt it can be done again.