Politics & Government

Myrick to push bill on offshore drilling

North Carolina could reap billions from offshore oil and gas drilling, a U.S. House committee estimates, but in-state political support remains shaky.

U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, a Charlotte Republican, introduced a measure last week that gives the Carolinas and other coastal states the option of allowing drilling and sharing royalties. A federal ban blocks energy exploration on most of the nation's Outer Continental Shelf, including the East Coast, until 2012.

The Bush administration is also reported to be interested in protecting deep-sea coral reefs, which could be damaged by drilling, off the Southeastern coast.

The federal Minerals Management Service estimates undiscovered but recoverable oil reserves off the Atlantic coast at 3.8 billion barrels. It estimates natural gas at 37 trillion cubic feet.

Myrick's office this week circulated an estimate of North Carolina's potential oil-and-gas windfalls that is based on a far more optimistic view of those reserves.

The estimate, by the staff of the House Natural Resources committee, uses MMS figures that show only a 5 percent chance of tapping far larger reserves. Those figures were used, the committee said, because the minerals agency has historically underestimated resources and relies on old data for the Atlantic.

According to the more generous predictions, the committee staff estimated, North Carolina would receive royalties of $23.8 billion over 30 to 40 years.

The House passed a similar drilling bill in 2006 that died in the Senate. Myrick, who announced her new filing at a Charlotte gas station, said rising gasoline prices could change the outcome this year.

Myrick's measure this time has 49 co-sponsors, spokesman Andy Polk said Friday, but none from the N.C. delegation.

The bill would allow states to decide whether to restrict drilling up to 100 miles off their coasts. The federal government would be able to lease drilling areas beyond 100 miles offshore. States would get 75 percent of the royalties from oil and gas leases within 12 miles of their shores.

Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican whose district spans most of the northern N.C. coast, was still looking at Myrick's bill but supports allowing states to choose whether to allow drilling, his office said.

But Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., won't support exploration off the N.C. coast, said communications director Katie Hallaway. Most constituents she hears from fear possible harm to tourism, military operations and the environment.

Dole favors exploration in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, where residents are receptive to it, she said.

Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat who urged the congressional delegation in 2006 to fight “any bill that would place the fragile ecosystems and vital economies of our state's coastal waters and shores at risk,” hasn't changed his views, said spokesman Seth Effron.

And N.C. Senate leader Marc Basnight, a Democrat from coastal Manteo, says it would take a lot of convincing for him to believe that more drilling is the nation's energy solution.

“If we produce more oil and burn more oil, that means the Outer Banks disappears quicker. That's what the science tells us,” Basnight said, referring to rising sea levels expected in a warming world.