Cover Story: NC bill to drill

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Drill baby, drill.  One year later, in many ways, it's like the disaster in the Gulf never even happened.

Big oil companies are making bank.  And North Carolina lawmakers are making a plan to drill in our coastal waters.

One year ago an explosion on board the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform.  Eleven crew members were killed in the explosion. Their bodies were never recovered.

The raging fired burned out of control for two days before the platform sank in five-thousand feet of water.

Then we saw the environmental catastrophe.  206 million gallons of oil was sent spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.  It was the worst oil spill in U-S history.

After a tragedy of that magnitude, a lot of people think deepwater drilling isn't the answer.

But apparently in North Carolina, those people are outnumbered.

On this very day, the one year anniversary of the start of the disaster, state GOP lawmakers are talking about offshore drilling putting a strategy in place to open our coastal waters.

To many the timing of this seems a little odd.  And they acknowledged that right away at the start of their news conference Wednesday morning.

But after being hammered in recent weeks for putting more focus on social issues than living up to campaign promises of creating jobs Republicans think they've seized on an issue the public says at least it's behind.

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," says one coastal resident.

But it was $4 a gallon gas in '08 and approaching that in '11 that's turning up the heat.

Three years ago President Bush lifted a decades-old moratorium and President Obama when he came into office announced he was opening much of the East Coast to energy exploration.

Deepwater Horizon put that on the skids for awhile but Americans' memories aren't that good.

Otherwise you'd never seen this.  GOP senators at the North Carolina General Assembly announced Wednesday they've introduced a bill to drill off the Carolina coastline.

Senate Bill 709 would direct Gov. Perdue to enter into a pact with the governors of Virginia and South Carolina to urge the President to open up the East Coast to explore for natural gas 40 miles off shore.

Gov. Perdue set up a commission two years ago to look into it.  The commission came back with findings showing more research is needed.

"It's probably about 30-to-40 miles directly east of Raleigh."

Professor of Geography and Earth Sciences Dr. John Bender of UNC Charlotte says we know from explorations done 30 years ago that off North Carolina's coast it is limited on oil but there are quite a lot of natural gas reserves - enough to make it economically viable.

Environmentalists have a different opinion.

"Well it's interesting that this is the one-year anniversary of the BP disaster in the Gulf and that a bill would be introduced that could potential cause the same sort of catastrophic effect on our North Carolina coast," said Bill Guptin with the Sierra Club.

He and other environmentalists favor a different bill in the General Assembly that would open up the coast to wind power.

"We have a golden opportunity," he said.

But critics believe wind won't be able to provide enough energy to meet America's growing thirst for power.

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

"It's not going to completely meet our natural gas needs 100-percent for 100 years. But it'll be a nice maybe twenty-to-thirty percent input per year for maybe 20-to-30 years along the east coast," said Dr. John Bender of UNC Charlotte.

Supporters believe offshore drilling would bring nearly 7,000 jobs to North Carolina and generate half a billion dollars in revenue every year for decades.

And they say the gas is there.  Technology has improved a lot since they explored that area 30 years ago.  Supporters believe they can do it safely.

They say keep in mind this is not deepwater drilling.. offshore North Carolina rigs would be drilling 300-feet down not 5-thousand feet down like in the case of the BP disaster.

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