The coastline of Brunswick County is the southernmost stretch in the Land of the Longleaf Pine. It extends from the South Carolina border near Calabash, and includes the barrier islands which hold the beaches at Ocean Isle, Holden and Caswell. At Oak Island it leaps across the river to encapsulate Bald Head, and terminates at the geographic projection from which our entire region takes its name: Cape Fear.
George Davis, attorney general of the Confederacy, once described the cape as “a naked bleak elbow of sand jutting far out into the ocean. Immediately in its front are the Frying Pan Shoals, pushing out still farther twenty miles to the south. Together they stand for warning and for woe… the kingdom of silence and awe, disturbed by no sound save the seagull’s shriek and the breaker’s roar.”
As encore has reported previously, there is increasing pressure from the federal level to turn the kingdom of silence and awe into the “Trump™ National Petroleum Park for Very Loud Seismic Blasting and Oil Rigs.” Despite strong local opposition to opening the Atlantic Coast for oil exploration, last week the Brunswick County Commissioners voted to remove from their agenda a resolution against offshore drilling and seismic exploration. It’s important to recognize it was not a vote in favor of or opposed to offshore drilling; rather, it was a vote to not vote on it one way or another. It’s a curious motion indeed, considering the room on Monday night was full of people from Oceana and the Brunswick Environmental Action Team, all vehemently opposed to offshore drilling, who sought to have their voices heard by elected representatives.
The highlights of the three-page resolution included reference to a 2015 letter sent to President Obama, signed by 75 leading marine scientists, which stated, “Opening the U.S. East Coast to seismic airgun exploration poses an unacceptable risk of serious harm to marine life at the species and population levels, the full extent of which will not be understood until long after the harm occurs.”
The resolution pointed to research conducted by the Institute for Marine and Arctic Study at the University of Tasmania in 2017; the research stated “marine seismic surveys used in petroleum exploration could cause a two- to three-fold increase in mortality of adult and larval zooplankton.” Zooplankton, the base of the food chain in the ocean, are tiny animals which float with currents and are eaten by fish, whales, and other marine life.
Exploratory and commercial offshore drilling, the resolution continued, poses a substantial risk of a spill. No need look further than the Gulf of Mexico, with their poisoned fisheries and tarball-laden beaches, for evidence. Drilling also requires “substantial onshore infrastructure,” like refineries and pipelines, which the resolution said “will further risk the health and safety of the environment, character, and natural beauty of North Carolina’s coast.”
The resolution argued Brunswick County’s economic survival depends solely on sustainability of the existing environment. Brunswick County, once the most forested county in the state, has a plethora of places like the ecologically diverse maritime forest, or estuaries and salt marshes which provide a nursery ground for seafood and a natural buffer against hurricane impacts. The place with the most to lose from drilling is of course the beach, a habitat itself, as well as a draw to the area for tourists and locals alike. It has a unique ability to bring us within shouting distance of the sublime. If the government of the county is committed to being a good steward of the special places, why not vote to protect them?
The Brunswick County Commissioners had a chance to say all of this last Monday, but by a measure of four-to-one, they chose to remain silent. Citizens they represent have not yet given up hope for official action. Dan George, fisherman and representative of the grassroots environmental advocacy group, Brunswick Environmental Action Team, says, “BEAT will be persistent until the Brunswick County commissioners decide to represent the people of the county rather than making this a nonpartisan issue political. With resolutions against offshore drilling and seismic testing having already been passed in 13 out of 19 towns in the county, the evidence is clear. We will continue to fight for the health of our coast.”
Every coastal governor (except one, Maine’s Paul LePage), on both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, opposes oil and gas exploration off the coasts they govern. Most are seeking waivers for exemption from the process, like the one given to Florida Governor Rick Scott. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper stated last July, “It’s clear that opening North Carolina’s coast to oil and gas exploration and drilling would bring unacceptable risks to our economy, our environment, and our coastal communities—and for little potential gain.”
Cooper’s rallying cry of “Not Off Our Coast” has been echoed by NC’s head of the DEQ, Michael Regan, as well as by NC Attorney General Josh Stein. Thirty-three cities, towns and counties in North Carolina (including New Hanover) and 140 municipalities up and down the East Coast have passed formal resolutions opposing drilling off the coast.
By the Commissioners’ act of choosing inaction and silence, in the face of irreparable environmental harm, Brunswick County sticks out among its East Coast neighbors like the Cape Fear itself, standing, as Davis said, “for warning and for woe.” Many disasters have already taken place on the ragged sandbars of Frying Pan: the sharp-toothed shoals have sunk Confederate blockade runners and ironclads, Victorian-era sloops and schooners, turn-of-the-century steamers, and freighters which ran aground while dodging German submarines in the second World War, to name only a few.
Yet, the greatest disaster of all, one from which the spirit of the land and people would never recover, would be to lose the natural community of our Southern beaches—the pelicans and herons who hunt myriad fish, teeming in the waters, the loggerhead turtles who nest upon our beaches, the playful dolphins who remind humanity intelligence was not a gift given solely to us … under an inevitable and deadly black tide of oil.