Carteret County sits in a region of North Carolina known as the Crystal Coast. It’s celebrated for its charming lighthouses, sun-bleached beaches, and relaxed atmosphere. The population is 89.9 percent white and staunchly Republican.
Donald Trump won the county in 2016 with 71 percent of the vote. But he has touched off an insurrection among the GOP faithful here on the issue of offshore drilling, which the county almost universally views as a threat to tourism. In that, Carteret is typical of areas up and down the Eastern Seaboard, where opposition to the Trump administration’s proposed plan to allow offshore drilling in nearly all U.S. coastal waters has become a top issue in the 2018 midterms. While coastal Republicans’ support for Trump remains strong, their opposition to drilling underscores the limits of that support when local pocketbook and quality-of-life issues are at stake.
“We’re very conservative here,” said Tom Kies, the president of the Carteret County Chamber of Commerce. It’s “a very Republican county.” But people are very aware “how important tourism, and the quality of life, is for our market,” he continued. “That really is our lifeblood.”
Trump’s Interior Department released in January its plan for offshore drilling, which would open up more than a billion acres in the Arctic and along the Eastern Seaboard. A revised version is expected to come out this fall.
In Carteret County, six municipalities have already passed resolutions opposing offshore drilling and seismic testing, a controversial technique used to pinpoint petroleum deposits on the ocean floor. So have local governments in other states.
“Everyone is pretty much united” in opposition, Kies explained. And with the midterms approaching, Republicans up and down the ballot are breaking from the party line to oppose the president’s proposed plan.
“I believe in Donald Trump. I believe in Make America Great Again. We just disagree on” offshore drilling, Bobby Hanig, a Republican running for the North Carolina state House, told WUNC, a North Carolina Public Radio station.
Until recently, many East Coast politicians supported offshore drilling. In 2011, three Gulf Coast Republican governors and Alaska Governor Sean Parnell formed the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition, which is aimed at promoting the expansion of offshore drilling. By 2013, three more Republican governors had joined in: South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, and North Carolina’s Pat McCrory. In 2014, the coalition met with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to urge drilling expansion. Each of these moves received little opposition from the public.
“Nobody really knew. Nobody was paying attention,” said Frank Knapp, a former president of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast.
But in 2015, when Jewell’s department released its draft of the Oil and Gas Leasing Program, people did notice. If enacted, the five-year plan would have opened up huge portions of the South Atlantic to drilling for the first time, and outrage quickly spread along the East Coast. In Republican and Democratic areas alike, residents, legislators, and advocacy organizations held town halls, protested on beaches, and lobbied Washington. The military expressed concern that drilling would impact their operations off of Florida and Virginia. By the end of 2016, the Obama administration had revised its plan, removing the Atlantic from the leasing program, and had invoked an obscure law to ban drilling in much of the Atlantic and the Arctic.
“It really was like a bipartisan thing,” said Alex Taurel, the conservation program director for the League of Conservation Voters. “It really translated into kind of changing the politics of offshore drilling in the Atlantic, over the course of the Obama era into this Trump era.”
That change has only been exacerbated since Trump took office. Coastal communities worry about offshore drilling for a number of reasons. The threat of an oil spill looms large; few have forgotten the damage the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster inflicted on the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, there have been 4,105 reported offshore explosions, fires, collisions, and spills, resulting in 13 deaths, according to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. In 2017 alone, there were 10 offshore spills.
“We could not recover from an oil spill in North Carolina,” said Bob Woodard, the chairman of the Board of Commissioners in Dare County. Woodard, who supports Trump, strongly opposes offshore drilling and says opposition in the county is “overwhelming.”
Drilling also requires large amounts of onshore infrastructure, and some communities dependent on tourism worry that industrial development would affect their appeal as vacation destinations. “Charleston has been named the No. 1 [small U.S.] city by Condé Nast six years in a row,” said Jimmy Carroll, the mayor of Isle of Palms, South Carolina, which is about 16 miles from Charleston. “Why would we risk that kind of potential damage both visibly and environmentally?”
Seismic testing, or seismic airgun blasting, worries many coastal communities, too. The loud blasts used to detect oil and gas reserves can damage marine life. In Dare County, Woodard said, drilling and seismic testing are “one and the same as far as our constituents are concerned.”
Knapp told me the “celebration” over the Obama-era policy victory “was short-lived”: “We realized that the Trump administration was going to do a new five-year plan, and they are going to put the entire Atlantic coast in, not just the mid-Atlantic or South Atlantic.”
Indeed, Trump issued an executive order revoking the Obama-era ban on Arctic and Atlantic drilling in April 2017, and in January of this year the Interior Department proposed a new five-year plan that included almost all American coastal waters. “The program proposed the largest number of offshore lease sales in United States history,” according to the department’s press release. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke also began reprocessing five seismic-testing permits, and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement proposed rolling back drilling regulations created in the wake of Deepwater Horizon.
Following these policy changes, offshore-drilling opposition has only grown in the Southeast, and it’s front and center in some congressional campaigns this year. Candidates who’d previously expressed support for drilling now find themselves on the defensive—and have, in some cases, switched their positions.
One example can be found in Virginia’s Second Congressional District, where the Navy veteran and Democrat Elaine Luria is running to unseat the Republican incumbent, Scott Taylor. Her campaign has significantly featured her resistance to offshore drilling.
During Taylor’s first run for Congress, in 2010, he supported drilling, before reversing that stance earlier this year. “I’m a representative,” Taylor explained to me. “In my district, all the localities passed resolutions [against drilling]. The tourism industry, the military has an issue, obviously various environmental groups, fishing industry, shellfish industry, are just about unanimously opposed to it.”
In South Carolina, offshore drilling and seismic testing have taken center stage in the First Congressional District, which runs from Hilton Head to mid-coast South Carolina.* It has one of the state’s most watched elections: Republican Representative Mark Sanford, who has long opposed offshore drilling, was defeated by his primary challenger, Katie Arrington, who framed herself as the Trumpian candidate.
The change was a conspicuous one. Since June, five district mayors—all Republicans or independents—have endorsed her Democratic opponent in the general election, Joe Cunningham, due to his opposition to offshore drilling. Cunningham works as an ocean engineer and has stressed the dangers of drilling throughout his campaign. “I can’t tell you the last time that people were coming across the aisle to endorse someone of the opposite party,” Cunningham told me. “But that’s how critical and important of an issue this is for folks in this district.”
Even South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, who was the first and highest-ranking state official in the country to back Trump’s campaign in 2016, opposes drilling and seismic testing. “Opposition to offshore drilling is just about a political necessity these days,” said John Tynan, the executive director of Conservation Voters of South Carolina.
Offshore drilling is also a prominent issue in the Senate race in Florida between Republican Governor Rick Scott and Democratic Senator Bill Nelson. Both candidates have emphasized their opposition, though Scott, like Arrington, has been accused of flip-flopping.
After a January meeting between Zinke and Scott, the secretary announced that Florida waters would be taken “off the table” for drilling. Zinke cited Florida’s tourist economy when explaining the policy change, though leaked internal documents suggest it may have also been to give Scott a boost against Nelson. In response, other coastal governors—like McMaster—have demanded similar exceptions, pointing to their sizable tourist economies.
Though Zinke has signaled that the Trump administration’s revised plan will likely be scaled back, a second wave of backlash is anticipated if Atlantic drilling remains on the table. And depending on when the report is released, it could have even more consequences for the midterm elections.
“I don’t think we had this level of bipartisan support, certainly not in the fall of 2016 and not in the beginning of 2017,” Knapp reflected. “I mean, the proof is in the pudding. We have bipartisan opposition now in Congress.”
“The issue of offshore drilling has created strange bedfellows,” echoed Matt Moore, the former chair of the South Carolina GOP. “You have Republicans teaming up with conservation groups and local chambers of commerce. It’s a strange, but beautiful, thing to see.”
* A previous version of this article mischaracterized the borders of South Carolina’s First Congressional District.