In the early months of 2015, Peg Howell heard whisperings of news that disturbed her: Energy companies wanted to open up the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, off the southeastern coast, to oil and gas drilling. The details came in pieces. First, she saw a local legislator editorialize on the benefits that oil production would bring in a local newspaper. Then, the Department of the Interior held a meeting to seek comment nearby.
Howell, a retired corporate consultant, lives in Pawleys Island, South Carolina. Pawleys Island is a tiny, oceanfront town—“one of the oldest beach resorts in the country,” she told me—and she was shocked.
“I couldn’t believe the oil business would come here,” she said Tuesday. “I started sounding the alarm to everyone I knew that this was for real. It wasn’t something that people were just talking about.”
Howell was not unfamiliar with how the oil industry worked. She was a multi-year veteran of the business. In 1979, she became a “company man”—that is, the senior professional who manages and commands full responsibility for the daily operation of an oil rig. Howell was, in fact, the first female “company man” in the Gulf of Mexico.
Yet despite that experience, she knew—upon first seeing rumors of the offshore drilling—that she could not abide oil and gas wells in the Atlantic Ocean.
On Tuesday, Howell—and other coastal residents, community members, and environmentalists—won their victory. The Obama administration dropped its plan to open the coast of Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas to oil and gas drilling.
But contrary to environmentalist expectations and early press reports, the Obama administration will continue to offer new leases for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Alaskan coast. The moves came as part of a revised proposal from the Department of the Interior handling offshore fossil-fuel drilling from 2017 to 2022. The proposal is not final.
“We heard from many corners that now is not the time to offer oil and gas leasing off the Atlantic coast,” said Sally Jewell, the secretary of the interior. “When you factor in conflicts with national defense, economic activities such as fishing and tourism, and opposition from many local communities, it simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with lease sales in the coming five years.”
Environmental advocates working at the national level reacted half-heartedly to the move.
“We’re thrilled that whales, dolphins, and coastal communities will be protected from the dangers of drilling in the Atlantic, but prohibiting new leases off the East Coast isn’t enough,” said Miyoko Sakashita, who directs the oceans program at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “President Obama needs to follow his own climate rhetoric and stop allowing new oil and gas drilling in all of our oceans.”
The revised plan will open 10 new leasing sites in the Gulf of Mexico and three new sites off the Alaskan coast. It’s still unclear whether those Arctic sites will actually be leased: Last year, Royal Dutch Shell abandoned its plan to drill for oil in the northern latitudes after spending $7 billion on a single exploratory well, in part because the price of oil has cratered.
Climate groups have recently focused on lobbying to keep untapped oil and gas reserves in the ground, a scientific necessity if the climate is to be kept from warming more than two degrees Celsius. Some estimates place all offshore Alaskan oil reserves at 25 billion barrels. The carbon dioxide preserved in those seams alone—about 10 billion metric tons—constitutes double the United States’s current annual carbon emissions.
The Obama administration’s continued commitment to leasing those three Arctic sites follows its move last year to restrict Arctic drilling in the vast majority of U.S.-controlled coastal waters. (The oil industry criticized that restriction before its details were even publicized.) In that same proposal, though, it also advanced the prospect of drilling off the southeastern coast.
Unlike Arctic oil exploration—a divisive issue with a multi-decade history—the prospect of drilling in Atlantic waters shocked nearby residents.
“The Atlantic Ocean has never seen any commercial production of oil or gas drilling, and the Atlantic has not been open to oil or gas leasing for 30-some odd years,” said Christopher DeScherer, a Charleston-based attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “At least in the past several decades, this just hasn’t been an issue that came up here.”
In fact, the last time oil drilling was floated in the region at all was the late 1980s, when Mobil explored tapping a gas field near Cape Hatteras. Federal law—and local opposition that feared an Exxon Valdez-like disaster—put an end to that attempt.
Governors of all four states whose coastlines were under consideration—including Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat in Virginia, and Nikki Haley, a Republican of South Carolina—announced their support for oil drilling. But communities intervened, DeScherer said, and a partisan divide never emerged on the issue. Local retirees, environmentalists, and companies dependent on tourism and strong fisheries imagined an oil spill destroying their business or way of life, except the accident they cited this time around was BP’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.
“Virtually every municipality along the coast of South Carolina has come out against this, no matter their political stripe,” he told me.
Howell added that many locals feared the southeastern coast would be “retrofit” for the oil industry. “The Gulf of Mexico grew up with the oil business, but there isn’t a coastline in the Gulf that’s like the coast of the Atlantic, where there are resorts and towns and shellfish fisheries—this whole lifestyle on the Atlantic is totally different,” she said.
“[The oil business] forever changes the environment, it forever changes the nature of work, it forever changes how people actually live in a place,” she added.
Her personal experience led her to oppose the proposal. Watching over the details of rig operation everyday, she said, she came to know that “pollution and harming the ocean environment was part of the cost of extracting oil and gas.” She took further issue with the industry after the 2010 spill in the Gulf.
“What really put me into opposing offshore drilling was the Deepwater Horizon accident—that British Petroleum did not take responsibility immediately for what happened there, that they didn’t say in their full statement, ‘we take full responsibility.’” She knew, as a former “company man,” that those in charge of the rig always bear ultimate responsibility for what happens there. (Howell left the oil business during its 1982 downturn, though she still worked with it occasionally as a consultant.)
But not everyone who opposed Atlantic drilling shared her distaste for the oil industry. Many local residents reacted to Congress’s lifting of the oil-export ban last year. People disliked that much of the fuel procured would ultimately be burned outside American borders, she said.
And ultimately, Howell felt that many people moved to protect their home and sense of place. “People here understood that these decisions are forever decisions,” she told me. “Opening up the Atlantic was going to put the oil and gas industry here forever. Even though the wells in California were drilled 50 years ago—and no new drilling is allowed off the coast of California, and hasn’t been since 1981—there’s still methane and petroleum leaks there today. This was a decision to allow the oil industry to come here forever.”
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