I’m in a ballroom on the other side of the hotel, where the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has set up informational stations about the regulatory side of offshore drilling. It feels like a trade show, only instead of product demonstrations and free keychain giveaways, there are bureaucrats standing in front of big glossy poster boards with colorful maps and extremely small text. I join the crowd of citizens milling about counterclockwise, and ask questions while gathering pamphlets. At the end of the loop is a row of laptops on the far right wall; people are typing in the comments they have come to deliver.
The first station outlines the decision-making process for oil and gas leasing off the coast; another poster shows the proposed program lease sale schedule (i.e., what areas would go on sale when, were it to go through). “It’s about a 15-year process,” the lady at the poster tells me, between the initial decision and when the auger hits the sand. Right now, we are in the 60-day comment-period window between the “draft proposed program” (the first of a three-step process of how to go about drilling off America’s shores) and the “proposed program” (the second step). Afterward comes another 90-day comment period, a proposed final program, then a 60-day period from the president and Congress. Then the program would—assuming everyone voted for it—get approved and leases would be sold to companies.
Leasing of our coast is a long, multi-step process, and it should be, given the potential for irreparable damage to the only ocean we have. After the rights to drill in certain spots are sold to the oil companies, there is another long process (involving exploration plans, reviews, consultations, more reviews and permitting decisions, and the drilling of exploratory wells) before the companies put rigs in permanently. It is during this process that seismic airgun blasting would be used to determine where the oil and gas deposits are.
Seismic airgun blasting is, on its own, destructive enough. It involves towing a device behind a boat which emits “dynamite-like blasts of compressed air,” repeatedly “every 10 to 12 seconds” for weeks or months at a time, along with audio receivers to pick up the bounces. The process, which creates one of the loudest sources of noise in the ocean, would threaten injury to an estimated 138,000 marine mammals, who use their keen hearing to echolocate and navigate underwater. Critics also point out how the loud noise might impede the Navy’s ability to detect foreign submarines in coastal waters.
But, nestled in the process, is something called a “State CZM (coastal zone management) Review.” Another bureaucrat from BOEM, Brian Cameron, says it gives the opportunity to the state to review what happens in federal waters—a sort of ultimate check against federal power—because in order for anything to happen, the state must approve the CZM review. That means, after receiving a consistency review on the potential impacts to the coast, even if the federal government wanted to drill and the state government was opposed to it, nothing would happen. “They couldn’t lease until there was concurrence from the state,” Cameron clarifies.
This is where the “game,” for lack of a better word, gets interesting: In a few years, when or if drilling comes up again, no one knows who will hold power at the state and federal levels. Right now we have a state government firmly opposed to drilling, but it might also be we elect an oil-hungry governor or NC General Assembly during the time the decision would be made, and no amount of Roy Cooper crowing “Not Off Our Coast” would stop the companies from doing what they desperately want to do. So it’s important for everyone who is opposed to speak out now—and loudly—before we get too far down the line.
From the lease sale schedule of the draft proposed program, our region (the Mid-Atlantic) is number seven on the list, with the scheduled sale year being 2020. At the rally, Secretary Regan of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) tell us already there are four oil companies lined up and waiting to submit applications. Even though on the list we’re below oil hotspots Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, we’re nowhere near out of the hot water, so to speak.
BOEM’s Don McLay stands before a big map to outline all the leasing areas. He explains geologists used several methods, including satellite imagery, which looked for oil seepage and geological data off the coast of Northwest Africa (from when Morocco was nestled off the coast of Carolina during the time of the supercontinent Pangea), to determine an estimate for how much oil was off the NC coast. The Secretary of the Interior tells them where to look, and uses the data, along with comments and speeches of citizens, to inform his decision about what to keep in a potential lease sale and what to scrap.
“So many things have to be correct to have an oil field,” he says. “You have to have this source, this heat and pressure, you need migration, you need a sand body that can hold it, you need a trap so it doesn’t leak up to the sea floor. You need all of those things or you don’t have it.”
There is a commotion in the middle of the room when two older gentlemen unfurl a banner that reads “Our Waters are Our Life/No Offshore Drilling in North Carolina.” Their main complaint is how the computer-submitted comment process is “just a formality”—and isn’t a real way to hear the passion of the public. “We’re being railroaded,” the man on the right says. It’s the same process they used for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, he says, and despite the opposition they went ahead with it anyway. A third man jumps on a table and gestures wildly. “This is your government, this is your state … they’re listening to the industry, and nobody else. Don’t let them take away your voice!”
The sheriff leads the protesters out, as I speak with Michael Pearson, the second vice president and one of the founding members of the Progressive Caucus of the NC Democratic Party. “The reality is [the Mid-Atlantic] is the perfect place for wind energy,” he tells me. “You could install windmills off the coast of NC, Virginia, and SC, 12 miles out, and it would supply enough energy to power the whole Eastern Seaboard, from Maine all the way to Florida . . .If we had that situation, we could also get General Electric or other companies that produce them in Europe to develop a facility here to assemble.”
That’s what we should be focused on; not drilling. “Because [offshore drilling] benefits nobody,” he continues.
* * *
The rally begins at 6 p.m. in the ballroom, standing-room-only. The energetic and vocal crowd numbers several 100 strong. State House Representative Duane Hall of Raleigh opens with a question. “Why do you think Donald Trump’s Department of the Interior held the only public meetings in the entire state of NC hundreds of miles away from the affected coast? He didn’t think you guys were going to show up. But Donald Trump was wrong. People from all across NC care [about the coast].”
DEQ secretary Michael Regan emphasizes his support and of Governor Cooper and NC Attorney General Josh Stein. “Not Off Our Coast,” he declares, as a reminder for people to stay vigilant, to keep raising their voices against offshore drilling.
The speakers also include residents and representatives from the Outer Banks. Sheila Davis, the mayor of Kill Devil Hills, speaks of her town’s long history of opposition to offshore drilling. Mark Hooper, a fisherman who runs a seafood house in Carteret County, pauses after becoming too emotional about the potential effects of an oil spill. “I feel responsible for [the wildlife],” he tells as he wipes away tears.
Wilmington’s representative Deb Butler takes the floor. “We all know the ocean is powerful and healing,” she says. “It calms us and brings us peace. It has been said the ocean stirs the heart, inspires the imagination and brings eternal joy to the soul. Offshore drilling would cost us a way of life that money cannot buy. We must protect our mother ocean and our sacred shores.”
* * *
We are jostling down a dark highway back to our beloved coast we had traveled far to defend. As I sit in the back row of darkness, I think about how much bigger it is than us—bigger than NC, bigger, even, than America. It is a global issue—and it just happens to be focused on our backyard. We are connected to everywhere else by the ocean, which laps our shores.
I have said the biggest reason not to drill is because of anthropogenic climate change—and I’ll reiterate it: Our climate is warming at a dangerously accelerated pace due to humanity’s continued combustion of fossil fuels. Without hyperbole, it is the biggest problem facing our human species. All our other problems are contingent on us solving this one. Political party, gender, race, religion … it doesn’t matter. We humans live on planet Earth. It is our problem, and in the same vein, dear readers, we have a part to play in saving our world.
Even if we stop the rigs from going in, we need to stop burning what they produce, too. Humankind has a remarkable ability to decide its fate, to change habits and invent new ways of living. We can cast off ways of the past like a blue crab’s too-tight carapace. We have the technology; we just need to decide to use it. It’s time—it’s been time to change for a while.
It’s an old problem: Humanity’s addiction to black death is like the mythical and many-headed hydra. To truly defeat it, we can’t just cut off the head of oil platforms in our state’s coastal waters and think we’ve won. We need to cut off all of them.