When Gov. Pat McCrory sat on a makeshift stage on the north end of Hatteras Island on a clear, spring-like morning, March 8, celebrating the groundbreaking for the Bonner Bridge replacement, a small plane made maybe a dozen passes overhead, trailing a banner that said, "Oil drilling is bad for business. Not the answer NC.org."
The irony was not lost on many of the Outer Banks residents and officials in the crowd.
The governor has been one of the most vocal proponents of offshore drilling since the Obama administration announced that it was opening up sections of the Atlantic off the southeast coast for oil and gas leases and then released a draft proposal in January 2015.
Many residents and government officials in Dare County have been among the most vocal opponents of the plan, and many of them were at the groundbreaking ceremony.
Dare and neighboring counties passed resolutions opposing offshore drilling, and local residents and others who love the beaches organized in groups, distributed yards signs, burned up the social media with messaging, sent thousands of comments to federal officials, and, yes, flew a banner over public events.
When a reporter asked McCrory after the event if he still favored oil and gas exploration off the coast, the governor declined to comment.
"I’m not going to divert the attention off this incredible accomplishment,” McCrory said after the groundbreaking, adding that he did not notice the banner being flown above the site.
Just one week -- seven days later -- quite a few opponents and proponents of offshore drilling were taken by surprise when the Obama administration suddenly reversed course.
On Tuesday, March 15, in a conference call with reporters, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Abigail Ross Hopper announced a revised proposal for the nation’s Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2017-2022.
The proposed program does not schedule any lease sales in the mid- and south-Atlantic areas, a decision based on strong local opposition, current market factors and conflicts with competing commercial and military ocean uses.
“This is a balanced proposal that protects sensitive resources and supports safe and responsible development of the nation’s domestic energy resources to create jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” Jewell said. “The proposal focuses potential lease sales in areas with the highest resource potential, greatest industry interest, and established infrastructure. At the same time, the proposal removes other areas from consideration for leasing, and seeks input on measures to further reduce potential impacts to the environment, coastal communities, and competing ocean and coastal uses, such as subsistence activities by Alaska Natives.”
The Interior Department said it received more than a million comments on the draft proposed program, released in January 2015. Input came during 23 public meetings and outreach with members of the public, nonprofit organizations, industry, elected officials and other interested parties across the country.
“Public input is paramount to our planning process, and the proposal benefits from extensive stakeholder engagement,” said Hopper. “We will seek additional input from citizens, industry, other federal and state agencies and elected officials as we develop the proposed final program.”
“Today is an incredible day for the oceans,” Randy Sturgill, senior campaign organizer for the southeast with the environmental group Oceana, a leader in the opposition movement, told the Coastal Review Online.
Matt Walker, co-chairman of the Outer Banks chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, told Coastal Review Online that the overwhelming opposition to Atlantic drilling was a great illustration of coastal residents and officials coming together “to protect their own” – their livelihoods, their environment and their quality of life.
Dare County, he said, was one of the first local governments in the state to oppose the lease sale. Tourism is a multi-billion-dollar industry in North Carolina, and Dare is one of the top destinations in the state for tourists because of its clean, unspoiled beaches.
“This is a victory for the people of the Outer Banks,” Bob Woodard, chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, said in a prepared statement. “I am proud that our community took a strong and united stand against offshore drilling.”
“It’s proof that good ol’ grassroots organizing makes a difference,” Sturgill said. “We took that, built upon that. We never really changed our strategy.”
Local opposition from residents and community leaders – thousands of letters, petitions, phone calls, public comments – worked its way up the bureaucratic ladder all the way to President Obama’s office, Sturgill said. It was a bipartisan effort, with 110 municipalities on the East Coast passing resolutions opposed to drilling. Only two counties in North Carolina – Carteret and New Hanover – passed measures in support.
Coastal Review Online noted that Surfrider made anti-drilling lawn signs available for residents to post in their yards, and both Oceana and Surfrider paid for banner planes with anti-drilling messages to fly over areas holding big outdoor events.
“We have certainly heard from coastal communities, generally about their opposition,” Jewell said. “This is not a big reversal. Basically, this is exactly how the process is intended to work.”
For the Outer Banks, this is the second time that grassroots organizing to oppose big oil companies has worked.
In 1989, Mobil Oil Corp. announced a plan to drill an exploratory well off Cape Hatteras. Outer Banks residents were shocked and then concerned enough to organize to oppose the idea.
The group they organized, named Legasea, galvanized public opinion on the Outer Banks and eventually coastal North Carolina against the idea of drilling off the Cape. There was no Internet back then, but the group members used many of the same tactics -- bumper stickers, buttons, T-shirts, many meetings, and many trips to Raleigh -- and, eventually, Washington, D.C.
Eventually, with the support of North Carolina's governor and other officials, they prevailed and Mobil went away.
Twenty-five years later, those who fought Mobil are now grandparents, who were joined in the fight against the Obama administration's plan for opening up the Atlantic for oil and gas leases by their children and grandchildren.
Somehow it's gratifying to know that grassroots organizing really can work -- big business and big government do sometimes listen to the will of the people.
In the case of the plan that was ditched this week, it didn't hurt that the military opposed the leases and the price of gas has plummeted, but it's clear that the people who opposed oil and gas drilling because of the threat to our tourism industry and our beautiful beaches played a major role.
The governor was not amused.
“President Obama’s total reversal can only be described as a special political favor to far-left activists that have no problem importing energy resources from countries hostile to the United States,” McCrory said in a prepared statement. “What’s more troubling is the President is closing the door before he even knows what resources can be harnessed in an environmentally sound way. Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s deal could ultimately cost North Carolina thousands of new jobs and billions in needed revenue for schools, infrastructure, dredging and beach re-nourishment.”
Nor was the petroleum industry.
In a statement from the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry trade group, president and CEO Jack Gerard said that the administration is going against the will of voters and state political leaders.
“The decision appeases extremists who seek to stop oil and natural gas production which would increase the cost of energy for American consumers and close the door for years to creating new jobs, new investments and boosting energy security,” Gerard said. “This decision stunts the safe and responsible path to securing the domestic energy supplies future generations of Americans will need.”
I am not going to start listing all of the reasons that make drilling for oil and gas off the coast a bad idea. Coastal Review Online did a terrific job with that in an award-winning series of articles that the news service published last summer.
Even though Coastal Review Online is published by the North Carolina Coastal Federation, which opposed oil and gas drilling, the writers and editors make every effort to provide balance in their coverage -- and they usually succeed. The series on offshore drilling is extremely well done, and you can read all of the stories on the CRO website, http://www.coastalreview.org/category/specialreports/offshore-drilling-series/. The Island Free Press reprinted many of them last summer.
We all value the unspoiled beaches on Hatteras and Ocracoke and no one wants to see them drenched in oil. That's a big reason to oppose oil and gas drilling, but certainly not the only one.
"There are ways to create jobs, revenue, and energy in North Carolina, but offshore drilling is not the answer," according to the website, www.nottheanswernc.org.
It is seriously questionable whether North Carolina would see the economic benefits touted by the governor and the oil and gas industry -- for a number of good reasons. Just to name a few -- the federal government generally opposes sharing the tax revenue from oil and gas with the states, oil and gas reports on estimated revenues are seriously just estimates, and many think the really lucrative jobs, if there are any, will go to big ports such as Hampton Roads to our north. Perhaps some might benefit Morehead City and Wilmington, which is why government officials in Carteret and New Hanover counties did not oppose the federal leasing proposal.
Most coastal communities, led by Dare County, have thriving tourist economies -- economies that could be put at risk by offshore drilling. And most don't want to take that chance.
Now back to Gov. McCrory's statement about the Obama administration's doing a favor for "far-left activists." He's running for re-election and his comments might play well with the electorate in some areas of the state. But not here.
Opponents of oil and gas drilling off the coast can hardly be described with the broad brush of being a bunch of lefties or liberals or greenies or tree-huggers.
I suppose some of them might be, but as I look around at my neighbors with signs in their yards or bumper stickers on their cars, I don't see a bunch of tree-hugging lefties. They are a pretty diverse group.
And no one can call the Dare County Commissioners a bunch of far-left greenies!
Let's admit it -- the system worked.