NC town called 'ground zero' in offshore drilling fight shows political cost of backing Big Oil over local jobs

Dean Lambeth, the former mayor of Kure Beach, North Carolina, angered his constituents by signing an industry-penned letter in support of offshore oil and gas exploration. He recently lost his seat to Emilie Swearingen, a former town commissioner who's been an outspoken opponent of offshore drilling. (Photos from the Kure Beach town website.)

Two years ago this month, more than 300 residents of Kure Beach, North Carolina (pop. 2,000), packed town hall to voice their anger with then-Mayor Dean Lambeth's decision to sign a letter supporting seismic testing for offshore oil and gas deposits. The letter was written by America's Energy Forum, a project of the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s leading trade association.

That contentious meeting was the spark that ignited a growing grassroots movement against the Obama administration's proposal to open an area off the coasts of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia to oil and gas development. What's happened in Kure Beach since shows that elected leaders could face consequences for ignoring widespread opposition to offshore drilling in coastal communities where economies are built on healthy oceans and clean beaches.

Last November, Kure Beach residents denied Lambeth his bid for a fourth term as mayor. He lost by a 54 to 46 percent margin to Emilie Swearingen, who as town commissioner was outspoken against offshore oil and gas development. On election night, Swearingen said she hoped she would be able to "make the changes the people have asked for."

Swearingen delivered on one of those changes this week when the Kure Beach Town Council voted unanimously to adopt a resolution opposing seismic testing and offshore drilling. The decision drew a standing ovation from the standing-room-only crowd.

"Many of you sat in this room two years ago with all the rest of us and you witnessed history," Swearingen said. "Our marine life means so much to us as does our environment, our economy, our tourism. But most of all our quality of life. That is why most of us live here and many of the rest of you visit us. ... Sometimes some things are just way too precious for money to buy or to risk them for any other reason."

The Jan. 19 vote makes Kure Beach the 100th East Coast community to take a stance against Atlantic oil and gas development. More than 750 businesses and business associations have also come out against offshore exploration and/or drilling.

As the people have spoken out, many elected leaders have followed. To date, more than 600 federal, state and local officials from both major parties have taken positions against Atlantic oil and gas development.

They include U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican whose district includes much of his state's coast, who said his position was in part "based on public input" he received. And Rep. Tom Rice, also a South Carolina Republican, initially supported offshore drilling but reversed his position late last year after local governments in his district voiced their opposition.

"My title is Representative," Rice told The Post & Courier. "I'm supposed to represent the people and if they don't want it, I don't want it.

Who will elected leaders listen to?

The same day Kure Beach town leaders voted against offshore drilling, the Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA) held a forum in the state capital of Raleigh to discuss offshore energy development and its implications for North Carolina. It was the fourth in a series of forums, with others taking place in Richmond, Virginia; Columbia, South Carolina; and Atlanta.

A secret-money nonprofit that promotes offshore drilling, CEA is a sister group of HBW Resources, a lobby firm that represents energy interests. CEA also runs the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition, a group of pro-drilling state leaders led by Gov. Pat McCrory (R) of North Carolina and a leading force behind the drive to open the Atlantic to drilling. No one from the McCrory administration addressed the Raleigh forum, which was moderated by CEA policy adviser Michael Whatley, the "W" in HBW Resources.

Speakers included Andy Radford of the American Petroleum Institute, who made a case for drilling, and Sierra Weaver, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, who made the case against. State Rep. Mike Hager, Republican majority leader and chair of the Joint Legislative Commission on Energy Policy, said he believed the state had an obligation to consider offshore drilling because of the jobs it could bring. However, projected jobs numbers are disputed.

Also addressing the forum was Abigail Ross Hopper of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which is responsible for crafting the next five-year offshore drilling plan for 2017 to 2022. BOEM is now sifting through hundreds of thousands of comments submitted on the draft plan, which proposed a single East Coast lease sale. Hopper said her agency expects to issue a revised draft early this year. Anti-drilling activists are hoping the Atlantic will be dropped from the new version.

Once the revised plan is released, the public will have another opportunity to comment. The agency will issue a proposed final plan by year's end, and it then goes to Congress for a 60-day comment period before becoming final. Hopper noted the strong opposition to drilling in North Carolina, pointing out that the state has set records for attendance at public meetings about the draft proposal, with most people there in opposition. She also said the administration's concerns over climate change would be a factor in the decision.

Will the people prevail over the politically powerful industry? Anti-drilling organizers are hoping.

"Small coastal towns like Kure Beach have the most to lose from this dirty and dangerous proposal, but their voices are going unheard in Raleigh and Washington," said Randy Sturgill of the environmental group Oceana. "It's time for Gov. McCrory and President Obama to stop listening to false promises from Big Oil and start listening to coastal communities who are saying loud and clear that they don't want offshore drilling and seismic airgun blasting off their coast."