As you are reading this, a ship is very likely miles off the North Carolina coast, mapping the ocean floor. It’s part of a National Science Foundation project that’s using seismic testing, blasting sound waves through the waters.
As early as next spring, the very same controversial process will be used by a different interest: The oil and gas industry will begin looking for places it might want to drill.
This past August, the Obama Administration announced it would begin allowing testing for oil and gas reserves off the Atlantic Coast.
Jack Gerard, the president of the American Petroleum Institute, is pretty sure what they will find.
“Historically, the data we have today shows that we could have as much 4.8 billion gallons of oil off the coast of North Carolina,” Gerard said. “We think that’s a conservative estimate because that’s based on technology and research done over thirty years ago.”
That estimate is about 1/10 of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico, as determined by a seismic study three years ago.
As the oil and gas industry’s leading lobbyist in Washington, Gerard’s comments made at the Coastal Energy Summit in Wilmington on Thursday were impossible to ignore. The industry brought a great deal of wealth to the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico. But it also, of course, caused 11 deaths and tens of billions of dollars of damage when the Deepwater Horizon blew up in 2010.
Now, the industry has its eyes squarely on North Carolina.
“North Carolina is very important because you have the longest stretch of coastline in the south Atlantic,” Gerard said. “That gives you the biggest reach in terms of area where we might discover oil and natural gas. I think North Carolina will greatly benefit, moving forward.”
Gerard cites economic impact studies that show 55,000 new jobs and $4 billion a year coming to North Carolina, if and when offshore oil production ramps up.
Gov. Pat McCrory has some ideas on where that money should go.
“I firmly believe that a fairly large percentage of that money should go to the coastal region,” he said. “And I think some of that revenue should be used for beach re-nourishment and for dredging our ports.”
But before that money can be counted and jobs can be filled, the state would have to get Congress to go along. Because drilling would happen in federal waters, a revenue-sharing deal with the states would have to be worked out.
McCrory co-chairs the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition and is working on such a deal.
“I hope that we get at the minimum the same deal that the gulf coast states are getting,” he said.
Several dozen protestors outside the Coastal Energy Summit – and a few inside – vehemently disagreed with the plans for oil exploration, seismic testing, and fracking. Many carried signs that objected on environmental grounds, but there are other well-established business interests that may prove to be offshore drilling’s greatest foes.
“North Carolina over the past several decades has built several industries on the coast – tourism, recreational fishing, commercial fishing, the boating industry, etc.,” Lisa Schiavanato said during a panel at the Summit.
She is the Co-Director of the North Carolina Coastal Resources Law, Planning and Policy Center at NC State. “A lot of this is how can offshore energy work with those established industries.”
Many, including the Governor, are predicting a long, drawn-out fight.
“It’s going to be a political battle," he said. “I want to be partners with tourism and travel in this effort. Because the last thing I want to do is any harm off our coast.”
That goal – protecting the North Carolina coast from the very serious harm of another Deepwater Horizon-type event – is, at this point, about the only thing all sides can agree on.