N.C. gubernatorial debate shows perils of Dems' shifting position on oil drilling

A WRAL-TV debate between gubernatorial candidates Beverly Perdue (D) and Pat McCrory (R) tried to clarify their stances on drilling for oil and gas off North Carolina's coast. (Image is a still from WRAL-TV's footage.)

The televised debate last night between the two front-running candidates for governor of North Carolina -- Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, and Republican Pat McCrory, mayor of Charlotte and a Duke Energy consultant -- delivered an interesting and contentious exchange on offshore drilling. WRAL-TV excluded Libertarian candidate Mike Munger, who chairs Duke University's political science department, because of low poll numbers.

With Congress expected to take up a proposal this week to allow limited additional offshore drilling in exchange for an elimination of oil company tax breaks and support for alternative energy sources, members who've flip-flopped on the issue and now support expanded drilling might find instructive the unfortunate the experience of Perdue, who got hammered by McCrory for saying just three weeks ago that she was "100 percent" opposed to offshore drilling for North Carolina but now says she supports it. McCrory has also been airing campaign ads criticizing her for the shift.

Perdue's dancing around the issue during the debate was annoying. It clearly exasperated moderator Pam Saulsby, a popular WRAL news anchor, who during an exchange about Perdue's shift on drilling over the course of three weeks finally exclaimed, "Either it happened or it didn't happen!" Perdue's answer on drilling also got a thumbs-down from reporter and commentator Laura Leslie at WUNC, who accused her of "fumbling" the question.

Here's my transcript of yesterday's discussion on drilling between, as seen in the still image above, Perdue, Crabtree, Saulsby and McCrory. When Perdue refers to "Gov. Martin," she's talking about James G. Martin, a Republican who led the state from 1985 to 1993 and who opposed offshore drilling.

Crabtree: The mayor touched on offshore drilling, on energy -- let's talk about that. Gov. Easley today even said, Look, I'm not really for this, but if Congress is going to pass it, we may as well make sure that we are protecting what would be ours. [Turns to Perdue.] You have taken somewhat of a different approach.

Perdue: My approach is very clear, David. I am for offshore drilling. I think that the federal government should require all of these companies that have oil leases or natural gas leases now -- 68 million acres of land under lease, 33 million of those are offshore -- they need to begin drilling tomorrow morning.

Crabtree: What changed your mind?

Perdue: The whole discussion. I've always been for offshore. Always. The mind change is on the fact of North Carolina -- and it's not a mind change, it's always been my position since the late '80s with Gov. Martin. And I really do believe that as Congress goes back, and I have contacted some of our congressional delegation -- if you do offshore, and I think the Congress will work on the Gang of 10 proposal. You know, I've read a lot about it and studied it, and I agree that you have to have this discussion. I know that it's not the end-all and be-all; you've got to have this kind of capacity right now. If we find resources in America, they should stay in America. They should not be offshored, whether it's on the inshore or offshore leases.

And then the thing about the discussion they're having, David, is that the only states that are in the play right now, the mix, are the Southeastern states. I've asked our Congressional delegation to include all of the states in the country that have ocean boundaries. That's fair. That's the way it should be. You should look everywhere rather than just targeting North Carolina.

And then I've asked our delegation that if they go forward with this to be sure that the governor of each state involved has the ultimate right, the authority, to plan the pathway. I would put together as Martin did a team of scientists and engineers -- bright, thoughtful people. They can look at the technology of the 21st century. And the minute they say to me, "Bev, this is safe. We can do it in the Graveyard of the Atlantic, off the shore of North Carolina," we will say, "Katy, bar the door! And do it, and do it safely."

But I do believe -- and I think the mayor of Charlotte agreed with me in the last debate -- you need these permittings, you need these studies, you need to be sure it's done safely.

[McCrory chuckles audibly.]

Saulsby turns to McCrory: All right, you were mentioned.

McCrory: I still don't know where she stands on offshore drilling in North Carolina.

Saulsby: Well, then, ask her a specific question.

McCrory: The issue is offshore drilling in North Carolina. We're running for governor of North Carolina, not governor of the Gulf Coast or governor of Texas. Our decision as the next governor is, "Will you support offshore drilling in the state of North Carolina, off the coast?"

Saulsby, sounding irritated: This is already established.

McCrory: My answer is 100 percent yes. Beverly just three weeks ago, because I was in the room when she said it, said she was 100 percent opposed to offshore drilling in North Carolina, and in fact said it won't happen on her watch. Now we're getting in this word for word: 'Well, of course I'm for offshore drilling.' But she's talking about somewhere else. We need to do it now, not just...

Saulsby sharply: Mayor.

McCrory continuing: ...not to be dependent on Venezuela and Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. We need to do it to create jobs in North Carolina. I was in the room ...

Crabtree interrupting: Let's clear this up.

Saulsby, also interrupting: That's right.

McCrory continuing: ... when you said it won't happen on your watch.

Perdue: Let me be clear with you...

Saulsby: Either it happened or it didn't happen!

Perdue: Let me be clear with you. I went back and I read all of the papers from the late '80s with Gov. Martin. He's a chemist, a scientist. I read what Gov. Hunt did in the '90s. ..

Saulsby, exasperated: I know, but can you just answer the question? We have an hour. Did you say it three weeks ago or did you not?

Perdue: If we have the ability to do it safely and the technology is there, the decision that I made in the late '80s and early '90s was based on the technology at the time. My original statement was based on the technology at the time. And if the studies show that in North Carolina, in the Graveyard of the Atlantic, is safe, we will do it. We will do it as quickly and as safely as we can.

McCrory: Well, this is what you didn't say just three weeks ago, and the technology didn't change in three weeks. We've known the technology. This was just three weeks ago when you said it will not happen on your watch and you're 100 percent opposed to it. Now, in math, in math...

Perdue, interrupting: Now, let me be clear with you: We will do it on my watch if we can do it safely in the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

Perdue perhaps unintentionally communicates with the audience that she's still uneasy with the idea of offshore drilling when she says "Katy bar the door," an expression that actually means "trouble ahead." At any rate, there's certainly trouble ahead for Perdue, who's now trailing McCrory in the latest Democratic poll.