DRIVE TO DRILL: The growing resistance to Atlantic oil and gas drilling

Opponents of Atlantic drilling have turned out in record numbers at public forums in hopes of persuading the Obama administration to halt plans to open an area of the Atlantic from Virginia to Georgia to oil and gas development. Here people gather outside a forum held earlier this year on North Carolina's Outer Banks. (Photo by Randy Sturgill, Oceana.)

(The third in a three-part series. To read the first, "Energy lobbyists behind governors' crusade for Atlantic drilling," click here. To read the second, "Gov. McCrory goes to bat for Big Energy," click here.)

Monthly town council meetings in Kure Beach, North Carolina, an oceanfront community of 2,000 people located 15 miles south of the port city of Wilmington, are usually quiet affairs, drawing a half-dozen or so residents to discuss mundane matters like board appointments and budgets.

But the council's first meeting last year was anything but quiet or mundane: What happened there on Jan. 27, 2014 is considered the bellwether for the growing grassroots movement against oil and gas drilling in Atlantic Ocean waters.

Some 300 people showed up at the town hall that Monday evening, filling the meeting room and spilling into the parking lot. Angry locals waited as long as two hours to confront Mayor Dean Lambeth, who recently had signed a letter to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, endorsing a move to begin seismic testing for oil and gas deposits off the North Carolina coast. The letter had been written by America's Energy Forum, an arm of the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas industry lobby group. Lambeth had signed it, lending his endorsement as the mayor of Kure Beach, without any public debate.

Seismic testing is the first step in offshore drilling, allowing energy companies to map potential oil and gas deposits in the ocean. At the time, the Obama administration was considering whether to allow seismic testing in the Atlantic — part of a broader plan to open an area 50 miles off the East Coast from Virginia to Georgia to oil and gas drilling by the year 2022. The industry says the testing — which involves air guns shooting dynamite-like blasts underwater as often as every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for weeks at a time — is needed to figure out the size and location of deposits. But opponents point out the blasts have been found to depress fish catch rates, and the federal government's own estimates say that as many as 138,500 dolphins and whales could be injured by seismic testing in the Atlantic.

Those and other concerns were on the minds of the 50 people who signed up to speak at the Kure Beach council meeting. When Lambeth moved the public comment period from its usual slot near the top of the agenda to the end, the crowd grew boisterous and Lambeth struggled to maintain order, banging his gavel and threatening noisemakers with eviction. (A recording is available here.) When a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Industry said seismic testing opponents were dealing in "hyperbole and fiction" and were "just flat wrong," the crowd booed and pounded on the walls. Speaker after speaker called on the mayor to rescind his support for the practice.

"I think when you signed this letter you weren't expecting this turnout tonight," Kure Beach resident Joanne Durham said.

Despite the council meeting uprising, Lambeth refused to take his name off the letter supporting seismic testing, calling the matter "done." But the incident marked the public debut of a growing grassroots movement against oil and gas development in the Atlantic — one that has expanded beyond environmental and conservation groups to include local chambers of commerce and associations representing the fishing and tourism industries, which are critical to the Southeastern coastal economy.

Since its watershed moment in Kure Beach, the movement against Atlantic drilling has racked up a string of wins in a campaign to convince the Obama administration to reconsider plans to allow drilling off the East Coast. It's collected hundreds of thousands of comments nationally opposing Atlantic drilling, turned out hundreds of people to federal hearings, and helped win over support from elected leaders of both major parties at the local, state and national level. It also helped organize an effort that so far has resulted in more than 70 local governments from Florida to New Jersey passing resolutions opposing or voicing concerns with offshore oil and gas development.

"Our strength as a movement is growing," David Turnbull of Oil Change International, a nonprofit that advocates for alternatives to fossil fuels, said during a teleconference of Atlantic anti-drilling activists held earlier this year. "It's a really exciting thing to see."

A 'seismic shift' on drilling

Opponents of oil and gas development along the East Coast are facing a powerful adversary: a secretive alliance between a group of pro-drilling coastal state governors called the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition and oil and gas industry lobbyists that has been pressing the Obama administration to expand offshore drilling for more than four years.

The push for Atlantic drilling is currently led by Gov. Pat McCrory (R) of North Carolina (at right), who before being elected in 2012 was an executive with Duke Energy and a spokesperson for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group that's funded in part by energy interests, including the American Petroleum Institute, and promotes oil and gas development. The lobbying of governors like McCrory is key in federal offshore oil and gas leasing, since the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act that guides the process gives significant weight to gubernatorial recommendations.

Less than a week before seismic testing opponents packed the town council meeting in Kure Beach, McCrory held a press conference where he announced he would take over as chair of the Governors Coalition. The group was founded in May 2011 by the Republican governors of Alaska, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, who at the time were fighting limits on offshore drilling, some imposed following the deadly 2010 BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Besides McCrory, the Coalition's current members include Democrat Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, Independent Bill Walker of Alaska, and Republicans Greg Abbott of Texas, Robert Bentley of Alabama, Phil Bryant of Mississippi, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Paul LePage of Maine.

But as a Facing South investigation found, by early 2012 the Governors Coalition had turned over its day-to-day management to the Consumer Energy Alliance, a "social welfare" nonprofit that does not have to disclose its donors but whose members include leading energy companies. The Alliance in turn is closely tied to HBW Resources, a corporate lobbying and public relations firm representing energy interests. The connection between the Governors Coalition and the Consumer Energy Alliance went publicly undisclosed until reporters began asking about it in 2014, and since McCrory became chair his office has been slow to answer reporters' public records requests about the Coalition's operations.

McCrory's use of his state position to lead a secretive group run in part by oil and gas lobbyists has raised concerns among government ethics watchdogs about transparency and conflicts of interest. There are also concerns that, as full-bore advocates of drilling, McCrory and the other members of the Governors Coalition are not representing the interests of their states' coastal communities, where a diverse array of residents and groups have voiced strong reservations about offshore oil and gas development.

For example, a recent poll of residents in North Carolina's eight oceanfront counties — those most likely to be directly affected by offshore energy development — commissioned by Coastal Review Online, a publication of the anti-drilling N.C. Coastal Federation, found that 46 percent opposed Atlantic drilling while only 42 percent favored it. Almost half of coastal residents surveyed thought offshore drilling would adversely affect the tourism industry while more than six in 10 thought recreational and commercial fishing would suffer. That contrasts with an earlier energy industry-sponsored poll of North Carolinians statewide that found 71 percent supported offshore oil and gas development.

"These results confirm that the more people learn about the facts of offshore oil and gas development the less they like it. Earlier polls showed much less public opposition," Todd Miller, executive director of the N.C. Coastal Federation, noted in Coastal Review Online. "It will be interesting to watch how this issue plays out politically since there appears to be a pretty strong, almost seismic shift, in public attitudes regarding drilling."

Elevating coastal voices

Given the disconnect between the position of many in coastal communities and the views of Southern governors on Atlantic oil and gas development, offshore drilling opponents are taking their message directly to the Obama administration as the approval process moves ahead.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is currently considering comments it received on the draft proposed offshore oil and gas leasing program for 2017-2022, which was released in January. BOEM says it expects to issue a revised plan in March of next year, and the public will then have another opportunity to weigh in; the final plan is expected to be released in late 2016. At this point, areas proposed for offshore oil and gas leases can be removed from but not added to the plan, so anti-drilling activists are aiming to get the Atlantic lease stricken from the administration's revised plan.

The strategy involves "building support in coastal communities and getting their voices elevated in D.C.," Dave Rogers of Environment North Carolina said during a teleconference held earlier this year on organizing against offshore drilling. "We will repeat those messages to McCrory, but we think it's a long shot to get him to change his mind on this."

Organizers have also worked to forge connections between Atlantic Coast residents and residents of the Gulf Coast affected by the BP disaster. They've held screenings of "The Great Invisible," a documentary by Alabama native Margaret Brown on the causes and aftermath of the BP spill. In March, environmental groups held a forum at UNC-Chapel Hill that featured Cyn Sarthou, executive director of the New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network. She emphasized the chronic spills and intense coastal industrialization that accompanies offshore oil and gas development.

"How much wetlands will be destroyed?" said Sarthou, who pointed to coastal wetlands' critical role as buffers against ocean surges from hurricanes. "You all need to be asking questions."

State groups including the N.C. Conservation Network, N.C. League of Conservation Voters and S.C. Coastal Conservation League have been joined in the anti-drilling campaign by regional and national outfits such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Oceana, Sierra Club, Southern Environmental Law Center, and Surfrider Foundation.

Earlier this year, anti-drilling organizers encouraged people to attend a series of open houses held by BOEM in states along the coast to collect public comments on its draft offshore drilling plan. Turnout was especially strong in North Carolina: At the open house held in Wilmington on Feb. 17, almost 400 people, mostly drilling opponents, showed up — nearly twice as many as attended earlier hearings in Washington, D.C. and Norfolk, Virginia combined.

At the urging of U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican who represents much of North Carolina's coast, BOEM added a second open house on the state's Outer Banks; that gathering, held on March 16 in Kill Devil Hills, drew 670 people — the largest-ever attendance to date at a BOEM public hearing. Again, almost everyone was there to speak against drilling.

On March 30, environmental groups including Oceana, Environment America, Surfrider Foundation, Friends of the Earth and International Fund for Animal Welfare delivered more than 400,000 comments to BOEM they had collected from opponents to offshore drilling in the Atlantic and the Arctic. BOEM Tweeted out a photo of the delivery (above), writing, "Have YOU commented yet?"

While environmental groups are playing an important role in the mobilization against Atlantic oil and gas development, the opposition has attracted a diverse array of groups and interests that cross ideological and party lines. Others that have taken formal stances against offshore drilling and/or seismic testing along the East Coast include at least eight business associations, among them local chambers of commerce in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina as well as restaurant and hotel industry groups in Virginia.

"The general concern with the oil is it only takes one mistake, and it takes decades to get out from under that," said William D. "Billy" Almond (photo at left, from Almond's website), chair of the Virginia Beach Resort Advisory Commission, which voted in May to oppose Atlantic drilling. "There's no guarantee. That is a situation that would really put us in jeopardy for many, many years."

Others that have taken stances against offshore drilling and/or seismic testing in the Atlantic include:

* Almost 100 individual local businesses along the North Carolina coast, from restaurants to realty companies to a standup paddle-boarding school;

* Five fishing management organizations, including the Mid-Atlantic and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which are charged with conserving the region's fisheries;

* 75 leading marine scientists from institutions including Virginia Commonwealth University, Duke University, the University of North Carolina, East Carolina University, Florida Atlantic University and Texas A&M;

* 83 state legislators representing areas along the Eastern seaboard; and

* 53 U.S. representatives and 12 U.S. senators.

One of the most compelling arguments made by these leaders and officials is not environmental but economic. As the U.S. senators wrote to BOEM in March, "Offshore drilling anywhere in the Atlantic has the potential to adversely impact our states' fishing, tourism and recreation industries, our coastlines and our environment. These industries that rely on a healthy coastal ecosystem generate billions of dollars a year in economic activity for our states and would be severely threatened by offshore drilling anywhere in the Atlantic."

'Weighing the balance'

All 12 of the U.S. senators signing the March letter to BOEM opposing Atlantic oil and gas development were Democrats, and none were from the four Southeastern states targeted for drilling. All 53 U.S. representatives who sent a similar letter in March are also Democrats, and only eight represent the four East Coast states where drilling is proposed: Donald Beyer, Gerald Connolly and Bobby Scott of Virginia; David Price, G.K. Butterfield and Alma Adams of North Carolina; James Clyburn of South Carolina; and Henry "Hank" Johnson of Georgia.

But in April, Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina (photo above) — a Republican whose district includes much of the state's coast — bucked the state's governor and his fellow Republicans by coming out against Atlantic offshore development, framing his opposition as a state's rights issue.

"The problem that has arisen as I have studied this issue over the last few months is that states ultimately will not be able to do the cost-benefit analysis that I initially thought was possible," he wrote in his April 20 letter to BOEM. "To me it makes no sense to do [seismic] testing that does not allow states and regions affected to then take that information and determine whether extraction of the oil and gas reserves in question make worthwhile the environmental, tourism, and other risks associated with their transportation." In an April 27 press release, Sanford said he made his decision after "weighing the balance between large blocks of untouched coastal estuarine areas, and in other parts, an established tourism industry, against the potential benefits of drilling."

Sanford said he also made his decision "based on public input" he received, including from a number of communities he represents.

He was referring to local governments in South Carolina that have passed resolutions opposing or voicing concerns about seismic testing and/or offshore oil and gas drilling. To date, more than 70 towns, cities and counties from Florida to New Jersey have passed such resolutions. Among them are four communities in Georgia, including Savannah, and 20 in North Carolina, including the two main ports of Wilmington and Morehead City, where the votes were unanimous.

Just this week, Myrtle Beach became the 20th local jurisdiction in South Carolina to take a stand against offshore drilling, joining Beaufort, Charleston, Hilton Head and other towns, cities and counties that have passed resolutions opposing or voicing concern about offshore drilling. The vote there was 6-1, with Randal Wallace, who cast the lone "no" vote, saying he felt like "a pair of brown shoes" at a "tuxedo ball."

"The South Carolina coast is virtually solid against offshore drilling," noted an editorial in The Post and Courier of Charleston following the Myrtle Beach vote. "It is hard to recall a grassroots effort that has advanced a cause so rapidly."

The swift growth and success of the movement to stop offshore drilling has left many local and state activists optimistic about their chances. They will face formidable opposition as the alliance of pro-drilling governors and oil industry lobbyists continues its efforts to influence the final five-year offshore leasing plan set to be released next year. But the coalition of local leaders, environmentalists, businesses and others fighting the drive to drill believes it has momentum on its side.

"We are winning. It's amazing to see the support in coastal communities," said Randy Sturgill, a North Carolina-based organizer with Oceana, which has worked with local communities to pass anti-drilling resolutions. "The battle for the Atlantic is ours to lose."