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Energy & Environment

Long Road Ahead For Oil Drilling Off-Shore North Carolina

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management

The Obama administration has released its latest plan for oil and gas drilling off-shore the United States. It excludes restricts Alaska, but opens up parts of the Atlantic Ocean, including off the coast of North Carolina.

Inside the federal Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management controls a very contentious issue--who gets to drill off U.S. coasts, and where. Every five years the bureau lays out what areas it will lease to drilling companies. Tuesday, the office released the draft 2017 plan, and for the first time in 30 years, it would open sections of the Atlantic.

But bureau director Angela Hopper says that doesn’t mean drilling will ultimately occur. This is draft one of three.

“We start with the broadest areas to consider and it’s like a funnel,” says Hopper. “It may stay the same; it may get narrower, but it can never get bigger. So, it has to be included in order to continue to be evaluated.”

Even if the bureau ultimately offers leases, it’s not clear companies will want to drill. The newly-opened region would stretch from Virginia to Florida, starting 50-miles at sea to protect the coast. How much oil is out there or how expensive it will be to extract remains somewhat murky. The bureau estimates it contains about 5 billion barrels recoverable with today’s technology—less than six percent of all recoverable U.S. off-shore supplies—but the surveys that figure is based on are 30-years old. Part of the plan also calls for new tests.

Still, environmental groups expressed alarm.

“Today opens the door,” says Sierra Weaver of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “What we have seen over the years is that the longer an area stays in a proposal, stays in a plan, the harder it is to take out.”

The debate falls along the usual battle lines. Environmental groups argue drilling will hurt coastal wildlife and resources, while proponents tout jobs for the area and increased energy independence. Suppoters include North Carolina’s political leaders.

“We have been trying to push this issue for a number of years,” says state Rep. Mike Hager, House majority leader and former energy committee chairman. “We actually see [off-shore drilling] as the lucrative, profit-driving, job-driving part of oil and gas drilling. It’s really not on-shore as much, it’s off-shore. And so I welcome that, and I’m glad to hear it.”

Others praising the plan included U.S. Representative Richard Hudson and Governor Pat McCrory—both pushed for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to allow drilling in the Atlantic. Director Hopper says that desire played a role in the plan.

“It’s a critically important factor, and I think you can see from our draft proposed program that it’s fairly reflective of the governors’ positions,” says Hopper. “But that is one of eight factors that we consider.”

Other factors include balancing environmental conditions and energy potential, but it’s notable that every Atlantic state where the plan allows drilling has a supportive governor. 

Correction 1/28/15 - President Obama designated about 10 million acres off of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas as off-limits for future drilling, but the plan would still allow leases in some areas. The  administration also proposed restricting most of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge earlier this week.