Under pressure from President Donald Trump, North Carolina's governor announced his opposition on Thursday to drilling for natural gas and oil off the Atlantic coast, saying it poses too much of a threat to the state's beaches and tourism economy.
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Up against a Friday deadline for comment from elected officials on the Trump administration's request for companies to perform seismic testing under Atlantic waters, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper held a news conference at a coastal state park to announce he'll be registering the state's opposition.
"There is a threat looming over this coastline that we love and the prosperity it brings, and that's the threat of offshore drilling," Cooper said at the Fort Macon State Park in Carteret County, where he said he visited as a child and as a parent.
"As governor, I'm here to speak out and take action against it. I can sum it up in four words: 'not off our coast.'"
State Republican leaders, including former Gov. Pat McCrory, have pressed for exploration both offshore and inland through hydraulic fracturing. GOP legislators have passed laws laying the groundwork for collecting royalties from any oil and gas mined below the ocean surface.
In April, Trump signed an executive order to expand oil drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, reversing restrictions imposed by President Barack Obama, and the Interior Department is rewriting a five-year drilling plan. A federal agency is now seeking permits for five businesses to use seismic air guns to find oil and gas formations deep under the Atlantic, despite the harm environmentalists say this technology does to marine mammals. Maryland GOP Gov. Larry Hogan also announced his opposition this month.
Cooper, who took office in January, said an oil spill could be catastrophic to commercial fishermen and the tourism industry, which provides more than $3 billion in spending and 30,000 jobs in coastal counties. North Carolina Petroleum Council Executive Director David McGowan said offshore energy could bring thousands of new jobs and more local revenues. The governor disagreed.
"There is little evidence that offshore drilling would be a financial boon for our state," Cooper said. If drilling does happen, he said jobs and revenue sharing won't likely be plentiful, and he said potential cuts to federal regulations also raise environmental risks.
North Carolina environmental groups were thrilled with Cooper's announcement, attended by a favorable crowd of supporters. Cooper, the attorney general for the past 16 years, said very little about offshore drilling during last fall's gubernatorial campaign against McCrory.
Cooper's office said more than 30 municipalities have passed resolutions opposing the drilling and testing.
Cooper "listened to all of North Carolina's coastal communities who've been calling for the protection of our coast," Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Sierra Weaver said in a release. Erin Carey with the North Carolina Sierra Club added the governor "sent a strong, clear message to the Trump administration and the fossil fuel industry that our coast is not for sale."
U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., a leader in a congressional caucus seeking to advance offshore energy, criticized Cooper's decision and said energy exploration and environmental protection aren't mutually exclusive.
"To put it simply, Gov. Cooper is wrong," Hudson said in a release. "This is not an either-or situation."
State Senate leader Phil Berger, an exploration supporter, took a dig at Cooper, saying it's fortunate the ultimate decision on drilling isn't up to him. "If we listened to liberal politicians like him, we would still be dependent on energy resources from dictators in Russia, the Middle East and Venezuela," Berger said.