July 17,  2008

Much more than offshore drilling
could be in the future for coastal waters


Even as politicians stake out positions on opening offshore sites to oil and gas drilling, other ventures could be in the cards for the waters off the U.S. coastline.

Offshore aquaculture, where fish are farmed in large cages in open ocean waters, has been touted by the federal government as the solution to weaning American consumers off imported seafood.

Wind energy projects have been proposed for the waters off Massachusetts, New York, Texas, and Delaware, according to the North Carolina Coastal Resources Law, Planning and Policy Center.

And this summer the North Carolina General Assembly directed the University of North Carolina to study the feasibility of building wind turbines in Pamlico and Albemarle sounds.

Offshore oil and gas drilling, aquaculture farms, wind energy plants – all of these ventures are likely to leave environmental and socioeconomic imprints on ocean and coastal waters and on coastal towns.  

Even shoreline aesthetics are likely to change, as rigs, cages, turbines, platforms, pipelines, cables, and barges become a more common part of the waterscape.

And with more and more tracts of submerged lands cordoned off and leased to private companies, the specter of “no trespassing” signs posted on ocean waters raises its ugly head in a nation where the public trust doctrine has driven policy and law.  First used to prohibit obstructions to navigation, the doctrine holds that the government owns the land under navigable waters in trust for its citizens.

“Minimizing user conflicts and not restricting public access to public resources is a very salient issue,” said Lisa Schiavinato, law, policy and community development specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant. 

Schiavinato is co-chair of the state’s Ocean Policy Steering Committee, a 13-member panel that is developing a policy report with recommendations on emerging ocean issues.  Funded by  Sea Grant and the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management, the project is the first broadly inclusive state ocean policy report since 1994.

The steering committee is focusing on five emerging issues – renewable energy, water quality, offshore aquaculture, sand resource management, and a comprehensive ocean management plan.

“The committee is looking at whether North Carolina would want to develop a comprehensive management plan,” said Schiavinato. 

Schiavinato said the state currently has “de facto planning” under the Coastal Area Management Act permitting system that brings activities such as bulkheading, dredging, and excavating that disturb submerged land, in line with state resource protection measures.

Still, North Carolina could follow the lead of Massachusetts where a comprehensive ocean management plan will replace case-by-case consideration of offshore development projects by the end of 2009.

With 4,000 miles of coast, the state has about 2.5 million acres of estuarine and ocean waters.

But development also takes place in waters beyond three miles offshore, an area known as the federal Exclusive Economic Zone that extends 200 miles into the Atlantic Ocean.

Under the consistency provision of the federal Coastal Zone Management Act, activities in federal waters that impact resources in an adjacent state must be consistent with state policy. 

Schiavinato said the influence of a state in the federal permitting process is strongest when the state has developed an enforceable resource management policy.

The draft ocean policy report will be discussed at “Shape of the Coast,” a North Carolina Coastal Resources Law, Planning and Policy Center forum in New Bern on Oct. 24.  Three public meetings will be scheduled this fall for public comment on the draft report.  


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