Cover Story: Carolina coast - drilling for oil?

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Less than one month into the "drill, baby, drill" compromise a worst case environmental scenario is washing up onto the Gulf Coast.

The spill is massive.  Because of this slick drilling plans are changing.

Friday the White House put a temporary moratorium on the drilling any new future oil drilling no matter where it is-- in the Gulf where it's allowed now or along the Carolina coast where some are wanting to drill.

Pristine and peaceful.  And that's the way they like it.  Neighbors off North Carolina's Outer Banks have been against offshore oil drilling from the start.

"Don't roll the dice. Leave it alone out there," said one neighbor.

But it was $4.00 a gallon gas two years ago that made it a political issue, and the "drill baby drill" chants which got both parties to get behind it.  And got the President one month again to lift a 20-year old drilling moratorium for many offshore areas, including the Atlantic and Gulf.

"It's going to come to the west coast of Florida. It's going to be all along Mississippi, Alabama."

Dr. John Bender, a geochemist and professor at UNC Charlotte, says an offshore disaster like this and to this extent has never happened before.  All the fail-safes to prevent a disaster failed.

"This is the exception," said Bender.  "That had everything in place they thought of should have worked. And in many cases it has worked where there's been problems. It just didn't work here."

But now it could have a lasting impact on future offshore drilling.

"It's just horrible that something like this has to bring to everyone's attention...."

Bill Gupton longtime member and a leader in the Sierra Club in Charlotte says this confirms his and other environmentalists worst fears.

As far as drilling along the Carolinas coast, he believes it's not worth gambling over.  A $6 billion industry he said is not worth risking.

"This should not have happened but it has," said Gupton.  "I don't believe that given the current technologies we have the choice of whether we should drill off the North Carolina coast. It's been protected for 20 years we need to continue that protection."

An Elon University poll conducted before and after the oil rig explosion found that nearly two out of three Carolinians support offshore drilling here.

Geochemist John Bender believes a pullback is certainly coming.  The question is how long will it last?

"It has some liabilities yes," he said.  "It will give us more oil. Make us a little more self sufficient. Will provide jobs. But there are environmental risks. Nothing is 100-percent guaranteed."

It was a new well and oil rig that exploded on April 20th and as yet they haven't figured out how or why it happened.

So does this become an oil industry version of Three Mile Island? Will we see offshore oil drilling come to a halt like nuclear did for so many years?

It certainly changes the dynamics.  One expert we talked to likened it to a surgeon.. who loses a patient.  Before you're going to do any more surgery-- you're going to want to try to find out what happened.

Depending on how this happened and how it plays out will go along way to whether offshore is dead forever or not.

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