Currituck opposes offshore drilling

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Currituck Commissioner Paul Beaumont calls for fellow commissioners to delay taking a stand against drilling for gas and oil off the coast of North Carolina, Monday. Commissioners voted 5-1 to oppose offshore drilling. Beaumont cast the lone "no" vote.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Thursday, March 8, 2018

CURRITUCK — After agreeing at their annual retreat not to take a formal position on offshore drilling, Currituck commissioners decided earlier this week to take one after all — in opposition.

Commissioners voted 5-1 to oppose offshore seismic testing and drilling for oil and gas. Commissioner Paul Beaumont cast the lone “no” vote, calling the board’s majority view “significantly premature.”

The Trump administration wants to expand offshore drilling in both the Atlantic and Arctic oceans, claiming the move will fuel job creation. The proposal has been controversial in coastal states, including in North Carolina, where a number of communities with beach areas have come out in opposition.

Gov. Roy Cooper in fact has called for U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to remove North Carolina from the list of states where offshore drilling would be allowed, saying it could cause irrevocable damage to North Carolina’s $3 billion tourism and fishing industries if an accident happened.

During the Currituck board’s retreat in January, commissioners agreed not to take a formal position on drilling for oil and gas off the North Carolina coast, saying they could not reach consensus on the issue.

Beaumont claimed Monday the reason commissioners didn’t take a position in January was that they didn’t have enough information to form a clear opinion. He asked what scientific data his colleagues had gathered and what experts they had spoken to since January to decide they now have an opinion.

“What information have you gleaned that is causing this rush to this decision because I would suggest that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Beaumont said.

Commissioner Mike Payment, who supported the resolution to oppose offshore drilling, said he was shown information by longtime fishermen that shows even seismic testing for offshore oil can be devastating to fish stocks. Payment said the information showed decreased fish catches in areas where seismic testing has already taken place compared to areas where it hasn’t.

Seismic testing usually involves drilling holes and using dynamite below the ocean floor to generate sound waves. The data collected from those waves can show whether it’s a good place to drill for oil.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Bobby Hanig, however, said he considered Beaumont’s query “a gotcha question.”

“Nobody would be prepared to answer that question in any way, shape or form this evening,” Hanig said.

Hanig acknowledged that some of the opposition to offshore drilling is based on emotion. However, he said his own decision to oppose it is based on the future of Currituck’s massive tourism industry.

“I myself am not willing to take a chance on someone losing their job for financial gain because of some oil being drilled offshore,” he said.

As far as the argument that oil drilling could help create more jobs, he said, “We already have jobs.”

“Everybody here has a job. Everybody that lives on the Outer Banks has a job,” supported primarily by tourism, he said.

Beaumont countered that representatives of the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management had agreed to come to Currituck and speak to commissioners. However, they wouldn’t be available to come until next month, he said.

Part of what the agency could discuss with commissioners is the leasing process for offshore oil and gas deposits, Beaumont said. According to Beaumont, there are eight specific “gates,” where at any time a county can request the approval process stop. He said the county currently is at the end of a second gate, which includes a 60-day comment period.

He also cited information that he said shows that by 2035, oil and gas development off the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia will generate 116,000 jobs, $56 billion in spending, and $9.5 billion in income from revenue sharing. Former Gov. Pat McCrory had cited similar data from Quest Offshore Resources, a deepwater data and intelligence consulting firm.

Beaumont emphasized Monday, as he did at January’s retreat, that he’s not yet prepared to say whether he favors or opposes offshore drilling.

Commissioner Marion Gilbert said a number of citizens contacted her to express disappointment commissioners “didn’t jump on the wagon immediately to make a decision” in January.

Gilbert said her recollection of the conversation at the retreat was that commissioners didn’t want to take a position then because each commissioner needed “some additional education” on offshore drilling.

“Since then, we’ve gotten some more information,” she said. “This is a very difficult decision, but we should be applauded for taking the time to review some more information and get educated.”

Commissioner Bob White, who represents the Currituck Outer Banks on the commission board, said he had spoken with constituents who told him they’re “definitely opposed to offshore drilling in any form or seismic testing.”

Fellow Commissioner Mike Hall said he has read what he can about the subject of offshore drilling and has also spoken with fishermen.

Hall said the question for him boils down to whether he’s willing to put the county at risk — and right now he’s not ready to do that..

“When more information becomes available, we can always revisit this. And I look forward to any other information that gives me the opportunity to learn more,” he said.

Commissioner Kitty Etheridge was absent from Monday’s meeting.