“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.”