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Drill and Spill:

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Hands Across the Sand
Sat., 6/25, 11 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.
Crystal Pier to Johnny Mercer’s at Wrightsville Beach
Oak Island Pier to Oceancrest Pier at Oak Island

photo courtesy of David Rauschkolb

It’s hard to fathom the pain felt by the people in the Gulf who watched their waters turn black from dark, poisonous muck in April 2010. Folks who live by the tides have not forgotten the devastation of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The pictures of wildlife drenched in black tar and the pleading fishermen who lost a great deal of their livelihood are only a few images branded in our heads. Still, offshore drilling is closer to open discussion among government officials thanks to the NC General Assembly’s ratification of Senate Bill 709, the “Energy Jobs Act.”

Having passed on Saturday, June 18, the act not only covers offshore drilling, it also opens the floor for clean energy options, such as offshore wind farms. It suggests it will “increase energy production in NC to develop a secure, stable and predictable energy supply to facilitate economic growth, job creation, and expansion of business and industry opportunities.”

It will urge President Obama to allow our state the royalties and revenue from energy leasing and production to be shared with Virginia and SC. It recommends that Governor Bev Perdue form a “regional energy compact” with other governors “in order to develop a unified regional strategy for the exploration, development, and production of all commercially viable federal and state offshore energy resources within the three-state region.” The revenue received would be placed in an interest-bearing fund until a total of $500 million is reached. That money would only be used for “emergency response, emergency environmental protection, or transmission after such an event has been declared a disaster by the governor.” After the high price-tag is reached, the money would go to the Highway Trust Fund, Community Colleges System Office, University of NC System, and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources for conservation and protection of our coast, among others.

Of course, the question remains: Why should we pursue energy options whose first $500 million in revenue goes to emergency response and environmental protection, say, in case of a spill? According to SB 709, we have approximately five trillion cubic feet of natural gas within an area of nine square nautical miles. “I’ve never heard of a natural gas spill,” NC Senator Thom Goolsby (Rep.), representative of New Hanover County, says jokingly.

The fear is placed upon damage to our waters from fracking. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, which occurs after a well is drilled, is the process in which pressurized water, a proppant (usually sand) and chemicals are shot down a wellbore to break up the rock, so that the natural gas may flow to the surface.

There has been much controversy over fracking safety. The chemicals, which the natural gas industry does not currently have to disclose, can include ethylene glycol (used in automotive antifreeze and household cleaners) and isopropanol (used in glass cleaner). The act of fracking itself is not inherently unsafe, as declared in a study done by scientists at Duke. However, they did find hazardous levels of methane in drinking water near gas wells in Pennsylvania.

Although scientists reported no findings of chemicals in the water they tested, Pennsylvania news station WNEP did report thousands of gallons of fracking fluid contaminating creeks and farmland when a piece of equipment on the well failed. Thus, it can be hazardous when leaks are caused from improper well construction.

What does this mean for NC? Although politicians are pushing the exploration of offshore drilling, citizens are battling the idea. This week coastal communities are banding together to fight its possibility with Hands Across the Sand. The international movement, taking place on June 25, sends a visual message of people holding hands along waterways and shores for 15 minutes at noon. The goal is to raise awareness that there are options other than dirty fuels, like gas and oil, to depend upon. Founder Dave Rauschkolb hopes legislators will begin to listen.

“We want to encourage our leaders to not be so drunk and blind with oil and filthy fuel money,” he says, “and use common sense to allow clean energy to flourish. Last year we had all 50 states and 43 countries participate. This is the largest event against offshore drilling in the world. It’s sending a message of unity to state, national and world leaders that they should pursue clean energy. The wind, the sun—these things should be exploited to the fullest.”

Rauschkolb is the owner of a restaurant in Seaside, Florida. He’s seen the damage from Deepwater Horizon first hand. He said he was afraid to let his daughter play on the coast because he found oil in the sand when he dug only a foot and a half down. “The fish and the Gulf are damaged to an unknown extent,” he shares. “We can’t be certain for many years how the food chain will be affected. It looks clean now, and they’re saying it’s great, but I think it remains to be seen.”

Local Hands Across the Sand organizer, Wendie Schneider, of Oak Island agrees. She’s furious with NC Senator Bill Rabon and Representative Frank Iler for voting in favor of SB 709. “I can’t believe they think putting money in a slush fund attached to the bill to handle spills is a solution to mitigating the devastation offshore drilling and fracking will cause,” she says. “We have so much opportunity. There is no single solution, but a collection of ideas to implement in areas where they make the most sense. The White House is offering money to build green. What else could we want? We each have to ask ourselves: Are we nourishing our bodies and the planet? If not, then we aren’t doing the right thing.”

There is hope, Tracy Skrabal, scientist and director of the southeast region of the NC Coastal Federation, says. “Offshore drilling is not inevitable in NC, but there will always be those who push for this option. If we have learned anything from the Gulf, it is that the small contribution to our energy needs that would be provided by offshore drilling will never be worth the risks to our clean water, natural resources and our economic structure—all of which depends so heavily on the preservation of these resources.”

The ratification of SB 709 does not necessarily mean offshore drilling is going to become a reality. Senator Goolsby says, “It just starts the process of talking with the Feds; I think it’s a responsible step to take. The bill’s primary sponsors explained that if Virginia develops the rights to all the revenue and energy, we may find ourselves losing.”

The Legislative Research Commission’s Advisory Subcommittee on Offshore Energy Exploration has received a report and heard testimony from UNC’s Wind Study Group. Sen. Goolsby says he’s spoken with people from the wind-energy industry, too. “We can develop jobs in all sorts of energy resources available to us,” he says. “We need to do everything we can to take care of folks.”

In its purest form, the Energy Jobs Act is making us all rethink the purpose and use of fuel on a larger scale. Whether wind and solar will be researched as equally as offshore drilling is questionable. If NC citizens do not want to risk the damage drilling could cause, they can join Schneider on June 25 between Oak Island Pier and Oceancrest Pier, or head to Wrghtsville Beach, where The Surfrider Foundation will gather between Crystal Pier and Johnny Mercer’s.

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