North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein has assembled a coalition of attorneys general from 11 other coastal states calling for the U.S. Interior Department to cancel the Trump administration’s plan to expand offshore drilling.
In a letter sent to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Tuesday, Stein and the other attorneys general, all Democrats, cautioned that the natural resources and seaside economies in their states would be jeopardized by the agency’s proposed five-year oil and gas leasing plan.
“You pledged that, under your leadership, the Department of the Interior would be a ‘collaborative department’ that would ‘solve problems rather than create them,’ “ the letter states. “But the draft proposed program fails to live up to those promises.”
Stein, who grew up in Chapel Hill and has fond memories of spending time at Ocean Isle as a child, contacted attorneys general in all the coastal states about a week ago with his concerns about offshore drilling.
Ecological and economic concerns
“Thousands of North Carolinians and 30 coastal communities have voiced their opposition to drilling off North Carolina’s shores,” Stein said in a statement. “I will do everything I can, including taking legal action, if necessary, to fight on behalf of our people, economy, and natural resources.”
Stein said Thursday any legal action would be filed in federal court, but for the next month or so, he and the other attorneys general would wait to see what action, if any, the Trump administration takes.
Their letter comes weeks after President Donald Trump announced plans to open nearly all coastal waters to offshore drilling and exploration, rolling back a ban that was set during the Obama administration.
Zinke’s proposal, which would cover 2019-2024, would make almost 90 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf available for oil and natural gas drilling. The plan calls for 47 potential lease sites, including nine off the Atlantic coast, where there have been none since 1983.
North Carolina Republicans point to economic advantages in pursuing offshore oil and natural gas.
In a July 26 letter to Zinke, 36 Republican senators including North Carolina Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis wrote: “Offshore leasing benefits the economies of all the states, helps reduce the federal deficit, provides affordable energy to families and businesses, and strengthens our national security.”
“Offshore development has undergone rapid technological innovation ensuring it is cheaper, safer, and provides access to previously out-of-reach areas,” senators wrote.
North Carolina’s coastal tourism industry creates 30,000 jobs and $3 billion in annual revenue, according to information forwarded by the state to the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management last year. Commercial and recreational fishing support an estimated additional 22,500 jobs and $787 million in revenue each year.
Additionally, visitors to the 326-mile North Carolina coastline generated an estimated $650 million in wages and tips.
“As Congress has recognized, North Carolina’s Outer Banks are ‘an area of exceptional environmental fragility,’” the letter from Stein and the AGs to Zinke states. “Endangered and threatened species are found throughout the state’s coastal waters.”
The other attorneys general who joined with Stein in seeking relief from the proposed offshore drilling expansion plans were from California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Virginia.
The attorneys general contend that opening up the new waters to drilling would “create multiple problems” for the states and threaten 3 million jobs across the country that depend on the ocean and coastal businesses.
Eight years since Deepwater Horizon spill
In a telephone interview on Thursday, Stein mentioned the 2010 explosion and oil spill at the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 workers and sent nearly 3.19 million barrels of crude oil into the waters off the Louisiana shoreline.
“We cannot afford a Deepwater Horizon spill,” Stein said.
When asked about balancing environmental and economic concerns with contentions that offshore drilling could stimulate economies along the coast that have seen jobs disappear, Stein said: “Drilling doesn’t bring that many jobs.”
“We have one ocean,” Stein added. “It’s irreplaceable.”
Earlier this week, Stein joined with attorneys general of Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Virginia opposing proposed rollbacks of safety requirements for oil, gas and sulfur operations on the Outer Continental Shelf.
The Obama-era rules, which were written in 2016 in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill, tightened controls on blowout preventers, which are designed to stop explosions in undersea oil and gas wells. The rules also called for rig operators to get a third-party review and certification that the devices would work in extreme conditions.
“We’ve got to look out for the people of North Carolina,” Stein said.