Dole alters her offshore drilling view

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who as recently as last week said she didn't support drilling for oil and gas off her state's shores, said Thursday that North Carolina ought to be able to allow energy exploration.

The N.C. Republican co-sponsored a bill that would allow states to decide whether to permit offshore drilling beyond 50 miles from their shorelines and, in return, share in the revenues.

“I believe the state of North Carolina should have the option to open offshore areas to energy exploration as long as it is safe, clean and not visible from the land,” Dole said in announcing her support for the bill.

“Now, more than ever, responsible and practical steps are needed to increase our energy independence and strengthen economic and national security.”

Dole has said in the past couple of weeks that she would be willing to look at legislation on the topic, but her position is a notable shift from what her staff said just a week ago after President Bush encouraged Congress to lift the offshore drilling ban.

“Senator 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,” her spokeswoman Katie Hallaway said at the time.

“Senator Dole does strongly support increasing our domestic energy sources and has voted in favor of exploration in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska because she believes these activities should be increased in areas where residents are receptive.”

Dole said in an interview Thursday that when she first supported the moratorium on drilling in 2002 that gas was $1.40 per gallon, and now it's more than $4.

“People's opinions have evolved based on their circumstances,” she said. “Folks are really hurting, there's no question about it.”

The campaign of Dole's election challenger, state Sen. Kay Hagan, D-Guilford, labeled Dole as a flip-flopper.

“The plan to drill off North Carolina's coast is just another in a long line of bright ideas concocted and supported by the Bush-Dole team to pad the profits and the pockets of their oil-producing friends,” said Hagan's spokeswoman, Colleen Flanagan.

Dole responded: “North Carolinians didn't elect me to be stubborn and intransigent. I'm comfortable giving North Carolina the option.”

Others are also reconsidering. Last week, Rep. Mike McIntyre, a Democrat from Lumberton who represents the southern end of the N.C. coast, said skyrocketing gas prices are driving folks like him to take a second look at oil exploration if there can be enough assurances that it won't harm the environment.

And some coastal communities, once a sure bet to protect their shorelines from such endeavors, are opening their minds to it.

“There does not seem to be the major opposition, especially if the exploration is far enough off shore so as not to be visible from the shore,” said Harry Simmons, mayor of Caswell Beach, south of Wilmington. “I'm not hearing the ‘no way, no how' kind of rhetoric that one once heard.”

Simmons, executive director of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, attributes the change not only to higher gas prices but also an overall sense that the country needs to be less dependent on foreign energy sources.

“I understand where the shift is, what the pressures are on Sen. Dole and others, and I understand there may well be parameters in which this could be something the majority of people could support,” Simmons said. He doesn't oppose drilling, but thinks it needs to be part of a much larger energy strategy.

Still, there remains great opposition from the environmental community.