KURE BEACH, N.C. — On a recent frigid night, anxious residents, many in “Protect Our Coast” sweatshirts, packed the town hall, spilled onto the lawn, and then erupted in cheers as their town government gaveled in a resolution urging President Obama to block oil drilling off their shoreline.
“Some things are just too precious to risk,” Mayor Emilie Swearingen said.
That afternoon, 140 miles inland in Raleigh, the state capital, Obama administration officials and oil company representatives had outlined plans to move forward with the drilling before a very different crowd, and state lawmakers liked what they heard.
“You’re talking about creating over 100,000 jobs,” said Michael Hager, the House Republican leader. “You’re doggone right this is good for the state.”
Within weeks, the Obama administration is expected to release a proposal to open up vast tracts of federal waters in the southern Atlantic to oil and gas drilling for the first time, and a divide is growing between the Southeast’s coast and its landlocked capitals. The plan, written by the Interior Department, is expected to delineate the waters that would eventually be auctioned and leased to energy companies, which in turn would bring the drilling industry to the banks of Georgia, Virginia, and North and South Carolina, along with thousands of oil rigs well over the horizon from the beach.
The move has the backing of the Republican governors of Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, and the Democratic governor of Virginia, along with Republican majorities in all those state legislatures.
From Raleigh to Richmond, state house denizens see new jobs and billions of dollars from royalty revenues to improve roads, schools, and public salaries. Among the highest-profile politicians in the capitals, at least one, Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Ralph S. Northam, is opposed, although his voice is lonely. Last Thursday, he sent a letter to Obama administration officials asking them to exclude Virginia’s waters from the offshore drilling plan.
Coastal residents in such towns and cities as Norfolk, Charleston, and Kure Beach share his concerns — and see potential disaster, even if the rigs are no less than 50 miles offshore and well out of sight. Fearful of a repeat of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which killed 11 workers and spewed 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, at least 106 coastal towns in the Southeast have passed resolutions urging the Interior Department not to move ahead. More than 80 East Coast state legislators and the owners of about 1,000 coastal businesses have signed letters to Obama opposing the drilling.
“For an uneducated guy who needs a job, it’s a good opportunity,” allowed John Hicks, a retired tool and die worker, fishing off the pier in Kure Beach. “But I also think about what it means for my 11-year-old daughter. An accident that messes up the coast could destroy her future.’’
Some opponents fear the transformation of the quiet Outer Banks into bustling oil towns.
“Our area has a billion-dollar tourist industry,” said Monica Thibodeau, a member of the Town Council in Duck, N.C. “The risk of drilling isn’t worth losing that.”
The split is more regional than partisan. Coastal Republicans fear the destruction of their tourist industries as much as seaside Democrats, while landlocked members of both parties envision new revenue for schools and highways.
The fight is playing out as a global oil glut has driven down prices to more than 10-year lows and depressed domestic exploration and extraction.
The Atlantic Coast states’ interest in pursuing drilling off their shores is relatively recent, as is the legal authority to do that work. Although offshore drilling has been an integral part of the coastal economy of the Gulf of Mexico since the 1940s, lawmakers from both parties in the Atlantic Coast states resisted the push by oil companies to explore Atlantic waters, supporting a longstanding legal moratorium on Pacific and Atlantic coastal drilling. That calculus changed after a 2006 law, written by former Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, which for the first time required oil companies to pay a portion of offshore drilling royalties directly to Gulf Coast states.
Until passage of that law, oil companies drilling in federal waters were required to pay royalties only to the United States Treasury. Since passage, Louisiana alone has taken in more than $10 billion in new royalty revenue.
Coastal lawmakers persuaded Congress to lift the offshore drilling ban in 2008, hoping the Landrieu legislation could be expanded to include their states, and they have since pressed Obama to lease the coastal waters for drilling.