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Fuel costs drive debate and action

An old debate over offshore drilling for oil and gas, once and possibly again focused on the N.C. coast, picked up speed Wednesday with President Bush's call for expanded exploration.

Fueled by $4-a-gallon gas, the growing clamor for new energy sources still faces opponents who envision oil spills, blighted ocean views and shorelines industrialized by pipelines and refineries.

Bush, in reversing his long-held position, talked tough: “Our nation must produce more oil, and we must start now.” Expanded offshore drilling, he said, could produce enough oil to meet U.S. needs for 10 years.

But many experts agree that it would take up to a decade for any benefits. And Congress, which for years has banned most offshore drilling, is unlikely to support the president.

Even Rep. Sue Myrick, a Charlotte Republican, ripped Bush for not repealing an executive order – initially signed by the first President Bush – that prohibits drilling until 2012. Myrick wants states to be able to choose whether to allow drilling off their shores and to share any profits produced by it.

“It really bothers me that if he's going to get in the debate, he should step up to the plate and literally do what he can do, which is lift the executive ban,” she said.

Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club, dismissed the renewed call for offshore exploration as “a tired refrain that benefits the energy industry and would be of very little help to consumers, particularly in the short run.”

Mobil's plan in 1990 to drill in a biologically rich area about 45 miles off North Carolina's Cape Hatteras – called The Point – led to years of controversy.

The state fought back, ruling that drilling is not consistent with state laws regulating the coast. Mobil and Marathon sued the federal government, claiming their leases were violated by legislation protecting the Outer Banks from exploration. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the government to repay the companies $158 million.

“There's still the same concerns that came up originally,” said Steve Ross, a UNC Wilmington fish scientist who explored the area targeted for exploration.

At The Point, the warm Gulf Stream meets the cold Labrador Current. Rich in nutrients, the area is dense with sea life – birds, turtles, dolphins, tuna – over a bottom of deep canyons. It's been named an area of essential fish habitat by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

It would also pose significant challenges for drillers: water 3,000 feet deep, strong currents and stormy weather.

“To me, the issue never was exploratory drilling, because that has relatively little impact,” Ross said. “The problem is what comes after that, and people weren't really willing to think that far ahead.”

He referred to the pipelines, refineries and other infrastructure needed to get the oil or gas to shore, store it and distribute it.

Conoco gave up the last of 21 leases for exploration in the area in 2000. Conoco, Chevron, Mobil and Marathon had leases in the area but never explored them.

State policy now calls for assessments to ensure that energy exploration would “avoid significant adverse impact” on coastal resources.

The energy industry said it's past time for finding more supplies.

With rising demand for natural gas closely matching available supplies, disruptions like 2005's Hurricane Katrina make prices shoot up, said David Trusty of Charlotte's Piedmont Natural Gas. Piedmont serves more than 1 million customers in the Carolinas and Tennessee.

Natural gas, which sold at wholesale for an average of $2.34 per thousand cubic feet in 1999, went for $13.26 Wednesday. Retail gasoline prices rose in that period from $1.15 to $4.02 a gallon.

“Here is a source of energy that's domestically, readily available, that doesn't take new technology to bring to market, and you don't have access to it,” Trusty said. “Energy policy needs to be a holistic approach. Access to supply is a key tenet of that.”

Rep. Mike McIntyre, a Democrat from Lumberton who had been opposed to drilling, said the ground is shifting on the issue due to the skyrocketing energy crisis.

Coastal communities initially opposed to the idea are now taking a second look if it would mean profit sharing that could be used to renourish beaches and dredge inlets, McIntyre said. The key is ensuring everyone it could be done in an environmentally safe way.

“There seems to be a good presence of natural gas that could be harvested in some way that wouldn't have the potential damaging effects that oil could, say an oil spill,” he said.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who supports drilling off the coast, said he'd do his part to put pressure on leadership to lift the ban.

“I and others are going to make this almost a daily issue because the cost the American families are paying for this cannot be ignored, and you can't relieve it short-term without a belief in the marketplace that production is going to be increased,” Burr said. “It has to be matched with policies that deal with the use of alternative fuels.”

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., won't support drilling off her state.

“Sen. Dole hears from many North Carolinians who do not want drilling off the North Carolina coast because of the potential negative impacts on the tourism economy, military presence and environment,” spokeswoman Katie Hallaway said.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield, whose northeast district borders the shore, said the industry hasn't used nearly 10,000 domestic drilling permits it already holds.

“Oil and gas companies are already sitting idle on a huge number of opportunities for increasing domestic production,” said Butterfield, a Democrat from Wilson. “Putting North Carolina's coast at risk when so many opportunities already exist doesn't make sense.”

Gov. Mike Easley said he didn't think the state would choose to drill if it had the choice, which Myrick's bill would allow.

“The benefit vs. the risk is poor arithmetic,” he said, adding, “It is too much squeeze for the juice.”

McClatchy Newspapers contributed.

An old debate over offshore drilling for oil and gas, once and possibly again focused on the N.C. coast, picked up speed Wednesday with President Bush's call for expanded exploration.

Fueled by $4-a-gallon gas, the growing clamor for new energy sources still faces opponents who envision oil spills, blighted ocean views and shorelines industrialized by pipelines and refineries.

Bush, in reversing his long-held position, talked tough: “Our nation must produce more oil, and we must start now.” Expanded offshore drilling, he said, could produce enough oil to meet U.S. needs for 10 years.

But many experts agree that it would take up to a decade for any benefits. And Congress, which for years has banned most offshore drilling, is unlikely to support the president.

Even Rep. Sue Myrick, a Charlotte Republican, ripped Bush for not repealing an executive order – initially signed by the first President Bush – that prohibits drilling until 2012. Myrick wants states to be able to choose whether to allow drilling off their shores and to share any profits produced by it.

“It really bothers me that if he's going to get in the debate, he should step up to the plate and literally do what he can do, which is lift the executive ban,” she said.

Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club, dismissed the renewed call for offshore exploration as “a tired refrain that benefits the energy industry and would be of very little help to consumers, particularly in the short run.”

Mobil's plan in 1990 to drill in a biologically rich area about 45 miles off North Carolina's Cape Hatteras – called The Point – led to years of controversy.

The state fought back, ruling that drilling is not consistent with state laws regulating the coast. Mobil and Marathon sued the federal government, claiming their leases were violated by legislation protecting the Outer Banks from exploration. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the government to repay the companies $158 million.

“There's still the same concerns that came up originally,” said Steve Ross, a UNC Wilmington fish scientist who explored the area targeted for exploration.

At The Point, the warm Gulf Stream meets the cold Labrador Current. Rich in nutrients, the area is dense with sea life – birds, turtles, dolphins, tuna – over a bottom of deep canyons. It's been named an area of essential fish habitat by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

It would also pose significant challenges for drillers: water 3,000 feet deep, strong currents and stormy weather.

“To me, the issue never was exploratory drilling, because that has relatively little impact,” Ross said. “The problem is what comes after that, and people weren't really willing to think that far ahead.”

He referred to the pipelines, refineries and other infrastructure needed to get the oil or gas to shore, store it and distribute it.

Conoco gave up the last of 21 leases for exploration in the area in 2000. Conoco, Chevron, Mobil and Marathon had leases in the area but never explored them.

State policy now calls for assessments to ensure that energy exploration would “avoid significant adverse impact” on coastal resources.

The energy industry said it's past time for finding more supplies.

With rising demand for natural gas closely matching available supplies, disruptions like 2005's Hurricane Katrina make prices shoot up, said David Trusty of Charlotte's Piedmont Natural Gas. Piedmont serves more than 1 million customers in the Carolinas and Tennessee.

Natural gas, which sold at wholesale for an average of $2.34 per thousand cubic feet in 1999, went for $13.26 Wednesday. Retail gasoline prices rose in that period from $1.15 to $4.02 a gallon.

“Here is a source of energy that's domestically, readily available, that doesn't take new technology to bring to market, and you don't have access to it,” Trusty said. “Energy policy needs to be a holistic approach. Access to supply is a key tenet of that.”

Rep. Mike McIntyre, a Democrat from Lumberton who had been opposed to drilling, said the ground is shifting on the issue due to the skyrocketing energy crisis.

Coastal communities initially opposed to the idea are now taking a second look if it would mean profit sharing that could be used to renourish beaches and dredge inlets, McIntyre said. The key is ensuring everyone it could be done in an environmentally safe way.

“There seems to be a good presence of natural gas that could be harvested in some way that wouldn't have the potential damaging effects that oil could, say an oil spill,” he said.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who supports drilling off the coast, said he'd do his part to put pressure on leadership to lift the ban.

“I and others are going to make this almost a daily issue because the cost the American families are paying for this cannot be ignored, and you can't relieve it short-term without a belief in the marketplace that production is going to be increased,” Burr said. “It has to be matched with policies that deal with the use of alternative fuels.”

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., won't support drilling off her state.

“Sen. Dole hears from many North Carolinians who do not want drilling off the North Carolina coast because of the potential negative impacts on the tourism economy, military presence and environment,” spokeswoman Katie Hallaway said.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield, whose northeast district borders the shore, said the industry hasn't used nearly 10,000 domestic drilling permits it already holds.

“Oil and gas companies are already sitting idle on a huge number of opportunities for increasing domestic production,” said Butterfield, a Democrat from Wilson. “Putting North Carolina's coast at risk when so many opportunities already exist doesn't make sense.”

Gov. Mike Easley said he didn't think the state would choose to drill if it had the choice, which Myrick's bill would allow.

“The benefit vs. the risk is poor arithmetic,” he said, adding, “It is too much squeeze for the juice.”

McClatchy Newspapers contributed.

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