A 'victory for people over politics' as feds cancel Atlantic drilling plans

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.)

Environmentalists and local community leaders across the Southeast scored a David vs. Goliath victory over the oil and gas industry and its powerful allies in government this week when the Obama administration issued a revised five-year offshore drilling plan that excludes the Atlantic.

"This is a victory for people over politics and shows the importance of old-fashioned grassroots organizing," said Jacqueline Savitz, U.S. vice president for Oceana, a conservation group that helped organize against Atlantic drilling.

The Interior Department said it canceled the proposed lease sale off the Atlantic Coast between Virginia and Georgia because of "current market dynamics, strong local opposition and conflicts with competing commercial and military ocean uses."

That local opposition, which was organized by a coalition of state and national environmental groups, included more than 100 municipal and county governments along the East Coast passing resolutions against offshore drilling and/or seismic blasting for oil and gas deposits, with many of them citing concerns about what a spill could do to their communities and economies. They included important tourist destinations such as Wilmington, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; and Savannah, Georgia.

In addition, thousands of citizens showed up to public meetings to express opposition to Atlantic drilling. A hearing held last March in the North Carolina Outer Banks community of Kill Devil Hills drew 670 people, most of them opposed to drilling, and set a new attendance record for a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management hearing.

On the other side, leading the push to open the region to offshore oil and gas development was the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition, a bipartisan coalition of pro-drilling coastal state executives chaired by North Carolina's Pat McCrory (R) that includes the governors of Alabama, Alaska, Maine, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. The involvement of governors is key since the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act that guides the federal offshore oil and gas leasing process gives significant weight to gubernatorial recommendations.

As a Facing South investigation documented, the Governors Coalition is operated by the Consumer Energy Alliance, a secret-money nonprofit with close ties to major oil and gas companies and energy industry lobbyists. The Consumer Energy Alliance said it was "deeply disappointed" by the decision to exclude the Atlantic and called on the next administration to "reverse course."

McCrory's office also issued a statement blasting the administration's action:

President Obama's total reversal can only be described as a special political favor to far-left activists that have no problem importing energy resources from countries hostile to the United States. What's more troubling is the President is closing the door before he even knows what resources can be harnessed in an environmentally sound way. Unfortunately, the Obama administration's deal could ultimately cost North Carolina thousands of new jobs and billions in needed revenue for schools, infrastructure, dredging and beach renourishment.

Though McCrory blamed the cancellation of Atlantic drilling on "far-left activists," the opposition included members of his own party such as Congressmen Mark Sanford and Tom Rice of South Carolina. It also included more than 1,100 businesses and business groups, many involved in coastal tourism and recreation, that were concerned about how spills and coastal industrialization could hurt their bottom line.

An economic study released last year found the industry's jobs promises were greatly overstated, with the region's established ocean economy centered on tourism and fishing surpassing even overly optimistic projections for drilling jobs.

McCrory's claim that the decision to bar Atlantic drilling would cost North Carolina billions in revenue is based on the hope that Congress would have passed legislation requiring the federal government to share oil and gas leasing revenues with Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia, but that proposal faced tough odds. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said earlier this month that he would put a hold on any attempt to advance the measure, which would have effectively prevented it from coming up for a vote.

The same day the Obama administration announced the decision, coastal conservation activists gathered for an organizing meeting in Wilmington, North Carolina. They had planned to discuss next steps to halt Atlantic drilling but instead made plans to thank those who helped in their fight and then headed to a local brewery to celebrate.

Sierra Weaver, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center that was involved in the organizing effort, called it "an incredible day for the Southeast."

"It represents the hard work of thousands of people and protects some of our most cherished places, from the Chesapeake Bay and the Outer Banks to the South Carolina Lowcountry and Georgia barrier islands," Weaver said. "Communities along the Atlantic have been strongly unified against this plan, and we are grateful the President listened."