Yogi Berra came to mind as I sat among the old activists, who had
gathered one night recently to plan for a fight they thought they had
won almost three decades ago.
Michael McOwen sat in a chair on the other side of the living room, cradling his granddaughter in his arms.
had first met McOwen in 1989 at Manteo Elementary School while covering
a public meeting on Mobil Oil Corporation's proposal to drill an
exploratory oil well off the Outer Banks. He was holding his daughter,
who was then about the same age as her daughter now in her grandpa’s
“It’s frustrating that here we are again more than 25 years later,” McOwen told the others.
He stopped and looked at his granddaughter.
“But there’s a whole new generation now to fight for,” he said.
a beloved baseball icon, a Hall of Fame catcher and an unintentional
philosopher noted for his malapropisms, famously summed it up once.
“It’s like déjà vu all over again,” he said.
and most of the others in the room had, indeed, been here before. The
grassroots group they formed in the late 1980s, LegaSea, had been
instrumental in galvanizing public opinion on the Outer Banks against
the Mobil proposal. They were successful then after several years of
fighting, but their vanquished enemy had arisen.
and grandfathers now, they met to regroup for a new fight, this time
against the federal government’s recently announced plan to open much
of the East Coast, including offshore North Carolina, to oil and
natural gas drilling. It’s the first time since the Mobil days that
drilling off the N.C. coast may again be a reality.
of the old activists had brought along some reminders of those old days
– the cardboard box they used to collect donations, the bumper
stickers, buttons and T-shirts with the “Save Our Oceans” and “No
Offshore Drilling” messages, the newspaper clips and flyers.
brings back a lot of memories,” noted Lucille Lamberto-Egan, who now
lives in Salvo on Hatteras Island, “and not all them are good.”
shared some of those memories: the packed public meetings, wearing out
U.S. 64 on drives to Raleigh to cajole legislators, the prickly
governor who slowly became an ally, the phalanx of lawyers and
public-relations people that Mobil threw at them, trips to Washington
to meet with federal officials, senators and representatives; and the
wreck of the Exxon Valdez that turned the tide.
“That history is important,” McOwen noted, “so we remember what we had to do and what we’re now up against again.”
MANTEO WILDCAT WELL 467-1
1973 Arab oil embargo triggered gasoline shortages and long lines at
gas stations across America. In response, President Richard Nixon
ordered his Department of Interior to triple the amount of offshore
acreage available for oil and natural gas exploration.
For the first time, the East Coast was in play. Oil companies bought
leases in 1976 and again three years later for tracts off the Northeast
coast. They drilled 10 wells. All were dry or contained non-commercial
quantities of oil or natural gas.
that track record, the bidding war that erupted when the first tracts
in the south Atlantic were sold in August 1981 surprised many. Sale No.
56 became a landmark for East Coast leasing because of the aggressive
bidding by a three-company partnership of Mobil, Marathon Oil and
Amerada Hess. It bid a record $103.8 million, or about $266 million in
current dollars, for one nine-square-mile block, called 467-1 on the
map, that was about 35 miles east of Salvo. The partnership along with
five other companies also leased 20 other adjacent blocks for $260
million — about $667 million in 2015 equivalent dollars.
eight companies formed the Manteo Exploration Unit and chose Block
467-1 as the best place for an exploratory well. It was at the edge of
the continental shelf in more than 3,000 feet of water. Below it,
buried deep beneath the seafloor, was a 100-million-year-old limestone
reef that formed when the ocean was much lower than it is today. Porous
limestone can make excellent traps, or reservoirs, for oil and natural
companies estimated that the reef could hold as much as six trillion
cubic feet of natural gas, or the energy equivalent of a billion
barrels of oil. That would have made it at the time one of the largest
gas fields in the world.
As majority owner of the block, Mobil was named operator of the exploration unit.
offshore leases normally give companies five years to explore, but most
of the leases owned by the eight companies had 10-year terms. Longer
leases were needed, the government reasoned, in so-called “frontier
areas” where no infrastructure existed and where deep water, swift
currents and other environmental conditions required greater lead times
Mobil released the exploration plan for the Manteo unit in early 1989. Drilling was scheduled to start the following year.
Reaction on the Outer Banks was swift.
THE FIGHT BEGINS
McOwen had an ad agency in Manteo in 1988, the year he first heard of
Mobil’s plan. His wife, Beth, had started the community’s first
domestic-violence shelter. They had just had their first child.
were involved with the community in fundamental ways and cared about
the Outer Banks,” he said, “but I don’t think anyone would have called
changed after he attended a meeting where a Mobil lobbyist explained
the company’s plans. “It was the first time anyone had heard about this
stuff,” McOwen said. “I was shocked.”
so the organizing began. McOwen and other opponents formed North
Carolinians for a Clean Coast. They later changed the name to LegaSea.
meanwhile was taking to local politicians and leaders. They came back
about how great it would be,” he said. “People told us ‘This is Mobil
Oil. You can’t kick them out. They’ve got resources and politicians and
lobbyists.’ We heard that a lot, but we just didn’t believe it. We just
couldn’t envision this happening here.”
LegaSea’s first task, McOwen explained, was to find out more about offshore drilling and what it might mean to the Outer Banks.
across the state, then-Gov. Jim Martin had the same idea. Only the
second Republican elected governor since Reconstruction, Martin was in
the final year of his first term in 1988. A Princeton-educated chemist,
he had taught chemistry at Davidson College before being elected. Like
any good scientist, Martin wanted answers about what drilling might
mean to his state.
Wright was hired to get them. Wright was then a young lawyer in private
practice in Raleigh. He had caught the eye of the state attorney
general’s office after he successfully defended development permits at
North Topsail Beach. An assistant called. Would he be interested in
becoming the special counsel to the governor on offshore drilling?
Wright told him that he knew next to nothing about the issue. He got
the job anyway.
was literally my full-time job,” Wright said recently over lunch at a
noisy restaurant in New Bern where he is now a partner in his own firm.
“Nothing else was initially in my realm than the offshore drilling
issue. That was an amazing time.”
the next two years, he collected studies and reports on everything from
offshore drilling techniques to Gulf Stream eddies. He interviewed the
top scientists on the subject and toured offshore platforms in Mobile
Bay in Alabama.
amassed a four-drawer file cabinet on everything,” he said. “The
information I amassed helped us put together a pretty compelling case
that we didn’t know enough about what Mobil was trying to do.”
A GAME CHANGER
law didn’t require companies to do full-blown environmental studies for
an exploration well. Officials at Mobil and at the old Minerals
Management Service, which at the time was the federal agency that
managed drilling in U.S. waters, assured Martin that there had never
been a major spill or accident at a test well. An environmental-impact
statement, or EIS, they said, would be done if Mobil decided to pursue
wasn’t persuaded and neither was he pleased that he had only 30 days to
respond to Mobil’s drilling plan. In a handwritten note at the bottom
of his formal letter to the agency objecting to the process, Martin
wrote: “Unless you find some basis for a more patient and thorough
approach to some of the major environmental fears, it forces us to
adopt the most defensive posture at every turn.”
company and the government ignored Martin’s demand. They learned what
many legislators, reporters and staffers already knew. “Jim Martin did
a good thing and said, ‘No. We need to know more,’” Wright said. “And
the more Mobil got snotty about it, the more that man, who could be
very stubborn, got his back up.”
things stood on March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez sailed into
Prince William Sound on the southeast Alaskan coast a little after
midnight and struck Bligh Reef. The tanker was carrying about 55
million gallons of crude oil from Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay oil field. As
many as 25 million gallons ended up in the remote sound, covering 300
miles of shoreline and killing an untold number of wildlife. Oil from
the Valdez was still washing up on beaches 470 miles from the sound
more than a year after the accident.
The effects in North Carolina were more immediate, noted Derb Carter,
who heads the Southern Environmental Law Center’s office in Chapel
Hill. At the time he served on a task force that Martin empaneled to
study the Mobil proposal.
Exxon Valdez happened in the middle of all this,” he said. “It was
significant because it was a pretty stark demonstration of what could
happen if a similar spill happened on the N.C. coast. Even though it
was a tanker spill, it focused pretty dramatically what the effects of
a spill could be.”
called a press conference in Raleigh less than a week after the
accident. I stood at the back of the packed room in the Administration
Building. A Mobil lawyer and public relations guy stood next to me.
governor approached the podium. He didn’t look happy. Martin wasted
little time in announcing that the state would seek an injunction to
stop Mobil’s drilling plan.
“And then we’re going to sue you,” Martin said, pointing to the Mobile guys.
He took a few questions and strode purposely out of the room.
The lawyer and PR guy looked stunned.
“What the hell just happened?” the PR guy asked.
“The Exxon Valdez,” I replied.
THIS IS THE END
got his study after Mobil and the government agreed to a voluntary
process that mimicked an EIS. Opposition mounted in the seven months
that it took to complete the study.
of the bigger communities like Morehead wanted the staging business,”
Wright remembered. “Most everybody, even the business folks, were
appalled at the idea of seeing the Outer Banks become Louisiana.”
the study, which was completed in 1990, state officials still argued to
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that year that they
didn’t know enough about drilling’s effects to determine if the Mobil
proposal was consistent with North Carolina’s coastal-management
program. A positive review was needed before Mobil could get federal
permits for their project.
one had ever won a consistency appeal dealing with offshore drilling,”
Wright said. “There were several that had been tried, but they always
lost to the trump card in that process, which is national security. It
has a veto factor over any other issue.”
Mobil appealed to the U.S. secretary of the Interior, who agreed with the state.
was over. U.S. Rep. Walter Jones Sr., a Democrat who represented the
Outer Banks, pounded in the final nail when he successfully added the
Outer Banks Protection Act to an appropriations bill in 1991. It barred
drilling off the N.C. coast until a long list of studies was completed.
Mobil waved the white flag and then went to federal court to get its leasing money back. There, it won.
were all committed to seeing this through,” McOwen said as the meeting
wound down that night in Manteo. “It turned out that the people of the
Outer Banks didn’t need much prodding. Opposition was nearly universal.
You know that famous line in the movie "Field of Dreams" -- ‘Build it
and they will come’? We built it and they came. Now we have to rebuild