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OBX Residents: Don't Drill Here

A picture of an oil rig
Under the current plan, oil rigs could be no closer than 50 miles from the NC coast.

The fourth floor ball room at the Ramada Inn - Kill Devil Hills offers an expansive view of the Atlantic Ocean. And what might be out there has David McGowan envisioning a financial windfall for North Carolina, and the growth of an entire infrastructure to support it.

“The fabrication of the rigs. The supply boats and the vessels that not only take supplies to and from the rigs but also ferry crews to and from. You have the helicopter bases and all the industry and helicopter support that goes into that,” said McGowan, the executive director of the North Carolina Petroleum Council. “And so there’s a tremendous amount of direct economic impact from the industry but then you have all the indirect as well.”

McGowan points to a study (pdf) that predicts a $4 billion annual impact and 55,000 jobs that the oil and gas industry could bring to the state. He says it would have a transformative effect on the region.

“Just 20 minutes west of here is Tyrell County, one of the poorest counties in North Carolina,” he said. “They could benefit tremendously from the jobs that would go along with this industry and the economic impact it could have on coastal North Carolina.”

McGowan was a relatively lonely voice of support for oil exploration at the Ramada in Kill Devil Hills. He was there for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Open House for the Scoping of the Environmental Impact Statement. It was designed to help residents better understand the Obama Administration’s plan to open the Atlantic Outer-Continental Shelf to oil exploration.

But while he was vastly outnumbered by opponents, McGowan’s hardly alone in his vision. Governor Pat McCrory has devised a plan to negotiate a revenue-sharing deal with the federal government and use it to build infrastructure on the coast – including roads, ports, and beach nourishment.

That plan was not widely popular among the residents of the Outer Banks who came to the Open House.

Kill Devil Grill
Credit Dave DeWitt
A sign in Kill Devil Hills opposing oil drilling.

  “Most of us are opposed to this,” said Mickey Baker, a shopowner on Ocracoke for more than 30 years. “They can not talk me personally into anything.”

In the 1980s and 90s, Baker was part of a group that fought against Mobil Oil’s effort to drill off the Carolina coast. She won then, and a 30-year moratorium was put into place.

The moratorium ended in 2010. In May of that year, the deepwater horizon blew up in the Gulf of Mexico. The Obama Administration extended the moratorium until this past January, when the President announced the southern Atlantic coast would be opened up for drilling.

“It’s the same ‘ugh’ feeling, of ‘oh no, we have to fight offshore drilling again’,” said Baker. “We’ve already been there and done that. What I see here is a new technique. Because we are in a new age. We didn’t have computers and social media in those days.”

The Open House and social media efforts drew hundreds of Outer Banks residents and business owners to the Ramada. From realtors to environmentalists, from restaurant owners to surfers, from mayors to students, they were nearly unanimous in their disdain for the prospect of oil rigs.

“Pretty much everyone in this room is against it,” said Brian Zongolowicz, the owner of Busy Bee’s pools and spas in Kill Devil Hills. “We all know if they put a well out there, one day it’s going to leak. We got a lot of hurricanes and ocean current and stuff, it’s going to leak one day. So that’s the main concern.”

This is one of the final events being held by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in coastal communities along the Atlantic. They have all been the same, with BOEM geologists and administrators patiently explaining the science of how oil drilling would work, and the long decision-making process still ahead.

“It’s a winnowing process,” said Renee Orr, the strategic resources chief with BOEM. “It can only get smaller as we go through the rest of this decision making analysis. Providing that analysis to the secretary for her to ultimately make decisions on what’s the best balance of the potential for resources, the economic impact, the environmental impact, and other uses of the area.”

It is a process that will likely take more than a decade before the first oil rig could possibly pop up, 50 miles outside the Ramada Ballroom window. But the ball is rolling toward that day.

Seismic testing to determine how much oil is out there could begin as early as next month.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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