By CATHERINE KOZAK
When I first traveled through Texas in the 1980s, I visited Galveston, an old Gulf Coast town not far from lovely San Antonio. Naturally, considering the blistering humid heat of the Texas June day, I wanted to take a dip in the Gulf of Mexico. Wading in, I was immediately struck by the bathtub-warm water temperature. Then I was amazed that
I could keep walking – and walking and walking - toward the horizon, with the water staying no deeper than my knees. But what struck me most was that when I strolled out of the water, there were thick black globs on my feet.
Tar balls or oil seeps, I was soon told, are just what beachgoers have to put up with on the Gulf Coast. Locals tell people to rub baby oil on the sticky stains before washing, but even with that, it takes considerable doing to get rid of them. The tar is also evident on some California beaches, as I learned when I arrived later on the West Coast.
It was that first-person experience I remembered years later when, as a reporter, I started covering Chevron USA’s interest in oil and gas exploration off the Outer Banks. Chevron had announced in September 1997 that it wanted to drill an exploratory well 45 miles off Cape Hatteras, aiming for work to begin by the turn of the century.
With the Trump administration’s current proposal to open all U.S. coastal waters to oil and gas exploration, I’m now on my fourth round covering potential drilling off our coast - and that’s not including the Mobil Oil Corp. proposal in the late 1980s. The public comment period closed on March 9, and it’ll probably be the fall before we know if the offshore waters of North Carolina will be included in lease offerings.
When Chevron had made its intentions known 20 years ago, I was impressed how the news immediately galvanized the community into action. Within hours, it seemed, battle-worn activists with LegaSea, the local grassroots group that banished Mobil, re-emerged, swords flashing. For the next two years – until the company relinquished its leases - I was immersed in presentations, workshops, reports, interviews, meetings, hearings, protests and legal documents about oil exploration. Somehow, members of LegaSea kept up with every development. For me, it was an intensive education on a complex subject, a swirl of science, opinions, politics, money and emotion.
If anything, the experience was eye opening. At times, representatives from the federal government acted like shills for the oil companies. During one meeting, an oil industry representative came close to trying to shame anyone who put gas in their tanks for not opening their arms to oil drilling. Meanwhile, scientists kept repeating how sensitive the targeted area was environmentally. Known as “The Point,” situated about 40 miles east of Salvo near the nexus of the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream, it was described as an ocean wilderness with perhaps the largest numbers of marine and bird life in the world. But it is also known for its extreme ocean and weather conditions, thanks to its location at the northern end of so-called “hurricane alley.”
Significantly, the area is estimated to hold 3 trillion to 15 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, believed to be one of the largest offshore East Coast natural gas deposits.
Opponents on the Outer Banks had heard it all before. Whether it’s for gas or oil, they argue, drilling is dirty business that has no place in a pristine ocean environment and tourist community.
Mickey Baker, who was one of the founding members of LegaSea, recalls how the group – initially only about eight people – were bold, even brash, to good effect. They lobbied politicians while displaying big photographs of the Exxon Valdez spill. They were coached by Green Peace activists. They learned how to talk to Congress members.
They analyzed every word and every number in the environmental report, and challenged math errors.
“We stormed down the doors in Raleigh,” Baker recalls, obviously delighted at the memory. “We did songs. We did dances. We did theater.”
Eventually, Mobil gave up. Then Chevron soon followed, folding its tent in 1999.
When Barack Obama first proposed to open the Atlantic in 2010, and leases were potentially offered in 2013, LegaSea was again ready, says Baker, who has lived on Ocracoke for 35 years.
At a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management workshop held in March 2015 in Kill Devil Hills, Baker brandished the same LegaSea signs she had stashed in her closet from the Mobil days. Drilling opponents had been on the alert since 2005, when a proposed bill was kicked around in Congress to conduct an inventory of offshore oil and gas resources.
Today, with an administration in Washington determined to drill in any and all offshore waters, opponents on the Outer Banks are rallying anew, joined by many others alarmed at the prospect of polluted beaches and waterways.
“The passion against it is still there,” Baker says. “We’re just never going to stop. That’s all there is to it . . . We have plenty of oil. We don’t need it.”
Ivy Ingram, co-chair of Surfrider Foundation Outer Banks, a nonpartisan environmental group, says that although the current presidential administration is pro-drilling, the governor is not, which makes opponents feel that he has their back.
All but one coastal county in North Carolina has asserted its opposition to offshore oil and gas exploration, Ingram says, and many leaders from other states have come out against drilling. Public officials from Dare County met with U.S. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke in Raleigh on Feb. 3, and a local delegation traveled to Washington DC earlier this month to meet with federal officials and staff to emphasis their concerns.
Backlash has been quicker and stronger than before, Ingram says.
“I think we’ve been working so long to educate people,” she says. “We’ve already done the hard work and the legwork.”
But one constant from the Mobil days to today is that of all the Atlantic offshore areas, The Point off the Outer Banks is still considered to have one of the largest deposits of natural gas – as well one of the world’s most profound wealth of marine and bird life.
BOEM held the only public meeting on Feb. 26 in Raleigh. At the same time, an anti-drilling protest was held nearby – with Dare County Board of Commissioners Chair Bob Woodard reportedly delivering one of the rally’s most fiery speeches. Ingram says that, despite numerous requests, including from Dare County, BOEM declined to hold
additional meetings on the coast because it says it is overwhelmed by the number of meetings it has to hold nationwide.
Busloads of Outer Banks protesters traveled to Raleigh, but this time, Baker, who is 74-years-old, was not on one of them. After she saw how impressively the high school and college students spoke at the 2015 rally in Kill Devil Hills, she says she decided that younger folks were ready and able to take the helm.
“We’re done,” Baker says. “These kids have it.”