Politics & Government

Tide in N.C. shifts to drilling

In the latest campaign ad opposing him, Democratic congressional candidate Larry Kissell looks like he's standing on a dark and lonely stage as he declares his opposition to oil drilling off the coast of North Carolina.

That would be an especially fitting backdrop these days for drilling opponents on the campaign trail and in the halls of Congress.

What was an acceptable stance on energy policy as recently as a few months ago has become a less tenable political position going into election season.

“It's extraordinary how quickly the politics of the issue have changed,” said Bill Holman, director of state policy at Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “There was a bipartisan consensus in North Carolina for the last 20 years against offshore oil and gas development. And in the last few months, there's been a big shift among all the political leaders on the issue.”

With the current federal moratorium on drilling expiring Sept. 30, both the House and Senate are expected to take some action as soon as this week. At least some expansion of drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf is in play, likely off the coast of the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia.

“Even the people who were totally against it and were saying ‘never, ever' are now on board because they know the public wants it,” said Rep. Sue Myrick, a Charlotte Republican.

Many of the politicians who haven't flipped completely on whether to drill off the East Coast are presenting much more nuanced views .

Kissell, the Biscoe school teacher who is trying to oust Rep. Robin Hayes, a Concord Republican, has a more complicated position than Hayes' ad allows. Kissell says his position is “drill here, drill now” though by “here” he means the United States, not North Carolina. He wants oil companies to use the leases they already have in the Gulf.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., who as recently as June opposed drilling off North Carolina, is running an ad attacking her challenger, state Sen. Kay Hagan, D-Guilford, for the same position. Hagan's campaign says she would support drilling as part of a broader energy compromise.

On the national trail, chants of “drill, baby, drill” greet the GOP presidential ticket. But even Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, opposed extending the area where drilling is allowed until recently. Aside from gas hitting $4 a gallon, another pivotal moment in the widespread political sea change was this summer when Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois suggested he wouldn't rule out expanded coastal drilling, said Roger Handberg, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida.

“He gave cover to it,” he said. “For people in the House and senators up for re-election, it allowed them to move.”

On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., conceded to a modified position on drilling last week after Republicans spent most of August complaining about the Democratic majority's inaction on energy policy.

Republicans are trying to elevate the issue because they think they're on the right side of public opinion, said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.

“They have used it strategically and politically to change the whole campaign equation, which has been largely going against them,” Taylor said.

A July survey of 648 likely N.C. voters by Public Policy Polling showed that 54 percent support drilling off the state's coast and 26 percent are opposed. But they're split evenly on whether drilling would have any immediate effect on gas prices.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said addressing the nation's energy future can't be boiled down into 30 seconds, but he doesn't object to the campaign ads.

“Not if it makes us do the right things,” he said.