Doubts grow about Atlantic offshore drilling

A few years ago, oil and gas exploration off the Atlantic coast seemed like a sure thing, with businesses, local politicians and governors of key southern coastal states lining up in support. Not anymore.

According to an article published Dec. 21 in the Washington Post, the tide has turned, as the price of oil has plummeted, the Deepwater Horizon accident blackened beaches in the Gulf of Mexico region, and new studies have cast doubt that offshore drilling will bring big bucks to coastal communities. Business groups and government councils in beach towns from Virginia Beach to Savannah are reversing their support, no longer convinced about the economic benefits touted by the oil industry, and spooked about possible oil spills.

“Why should we put ourselves at risk?” Laura Wood Habr, vice president of the restaurant association in Virginia Beach, told the Post. “We all saw what happened in the Gulf of Mexico. We don’t want tar balls on our beaches.”

There is currently no offshore activity off the southeastern states, which include Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia. But this spring the Obama administration is expected to complete a plan to allow limited oil and gas development off the coasts of these four states.

The oil industry says drilling will be safe and will add thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity. One industry-supported study concluded that offshore wells could produce the equivalent of 1.3 million barrels of oil a day by 2035 while creating 280,000 jobs. It also predicted $51 billion in government revenues by 2035, including $19 billion for states.

But more recent studies now dispute such projections, calling them unrealistic and based on misleading assumptions since estimated quantities of oil in this offshore area is small compared to the Gulf of Mexico. Other studies question the economic benefits touted by the oil industry because declining oil prices mean profits from coastal drilling will be less than expected, according to the Post.

Offshore wind supporters have found an opportunity in this dispute to argue for wind power. They say that installing wind turbines instead of oil platforms will produce more jobs and more energy without a risk of spills that would sully the ocean and beaches.

Despite the reversal of opinion of some early supporters, offshore drilling continues to enjoy support from prominent government leaders in the South — such as Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican. McCrory would actually like to see offshore drilling expanded in the Atlantic — but with elections coming in 2016, and resistance brewing on the coasts, offshore drilling plans could face a rough road ahead.

About the author

Pamela Glass

Pamela Glass is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat. She reports on the decisions and deliberations of congressional committees and federal agencies that affect the maritime industry, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to coming to WorkBoat, she covered coastal, oceans and maritime industry news for 15 years for newspapers in coastal areas of Massachusetts and Michigan for Ottaway News Service, a division of the Dow Jones Company. She began her newspaper career at the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times. A native of Massachusetts, she is a 1978 graduate of Wesleyan University (Conn.). She currently resides in Potomac, Md.

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