Drilling off the Carolina Coast:
Oil Prospects vs. Tourism Reality
By The Coastal Review Online Staff
Richard Burr, R-N.C., sent some of his people to Manteo a few weeks ago
to get a feel for what locals think about the prospect of offshore
drilling. In Dare County, they got an earful.
Nettles, the executive director of the county’s Visitors’ Bureau, was
among the 20 or so local people invited to meet with Burr’s aides. He
sat at a long conference table along with county commissioners, mayors,
tourism and chamber of commerce officials and members of environmental
groups. No one supported drilling.
Nettles brought up the specter of an oil spill, like the one then
ongoing off the California coast. “If that were to happen here, we’d
become a wasteland,” Nettles told the visitors from Washington. “We
don’t think offshore drilling is a smart risk.”
fear of what an oil spill might do to the coast’s tourism industry is
at the center of much of the opposition among local governments. In
North Carolina, from the Outer Banks in the north to Sunset Beach in
the south, beaches and coastal towns draw more than 11 million visitors
each year. In 2013 alone, visitors spent just shy of $3 billion in the
eight oceanfront counties, according to the state Department of
20 cities, towns, counties and tourism agencies along the coast have
passed resolutions against drilling or its kissing cousin, seismic
the Dare County commissioners and every town in the county on that
list. “The tourism board passed five resolutions opposed to drilling,”
Nettles said. “It’s no secret where we stand.”
it’s not hard to figure out why. If coastal tourism were the Internet
business, Dare would be the Google of the coast. Tourists spent almost
a billion dollars in the county in 2013, according to state figures.
That’s more than double what was spent in Dare’s closest coastal
competitors, New Hanover and Brunswick counties. Local governments in
Dare received almost $45 million in sales taxes that year, again far
outdistancing other coastal counties.
real money, Nettles told the Burr people, not the estimates that the
oil industry and its supporters like to use. If drilling were allowed
off the coast, an industry study done in 2013 estimates that oil and
natural gas production would have a statewide economic effect of $1
billion to about $5 billion annually by 2035, depending on how much is
produced and the prices it sells for. The median estimate is just shy
of $3 billion.
economic impact of tourism in those eight ocean counties will be worth
almost $4.5 billion a year by 2035, Nettles noted at the meeting.
Bennett, the mayor of Southern Shores, spoke for everyone around the
table. “It would be a tragedy to throw all that aside for the interests
of offshore drilling,” he said. “I don’t think any of us support this.”
Judge, a Dare County commissioner, agreed. “The risk-reward just isn’t
there,” he said. “You can’t look down the path and see at any point an
amount of revenue that would compare to what tourism will provide over
the next decades.”
Carteret County, municipalities including Beaufort and Emerald Isle
have passed resolutions opposing offshore oil exploration. Other towns
and agencies here have shied away from stating a position, due in part
to the prickly politics involved.
to Carteret County spent nearly $303 million in 2013, according to the
N.C. Commerce Department. Those expenditures generated $13.38 million
and $ 17.76 in state and local sales taxes, respectively.
Carteret County Tourism Development Authority has yet to formally
oppose offshore exploration. The authority discussed taking a position
as early as 2008, but members of the board at the time chose not to
vote to approve a resolution proposed by then-chairman Art Schools
stating that offshore oil exploration and drilling would be acceptable
as long as it doesn’t impact tourism. Board members said at the time
the oil industry would not be in the best interest of coastal tourism.
recently, the TDA has been asked again to consider a resolution, this
time firmly opposed to exploration and drilling, but Director Carol
Lohr said Thursday TDA board members have expressed concerns that it’s
too early to take a firm stance and more information is needed. That
said, there is consensus that tourism must be protected.
the comments I’ve heard, we would never support anything that would
harm the tourism industry in any way shape or form,” Lohr said, adding
that, based on past accidents such as the Exxon Valdez and the
Deepwater Horizon, North Carolina beaches would take years to recover
from a spill of that magnitude. “This county is so dependent on tourism
that we can’t afford to risk that, even if it’s a minimal risk and I
don’t think anyone can guarantee that.”
the statewide level, North Carolina broke its tourism records last
year, Gov. Pat McCrory announced earlier this month, with domestic
travelers spending a record $21.3 billion in 2014, a 5 percent increase
over 2013. State figures show that tourism in 2013 supported more than
3,000 jobs, with a payroll of $52.9 million in Carteret County, home of
Morehead City’s state port. In New Hanover County, home to the state
port in Wilmington, comparable figures the same year were more than
5,000 jobs and more than $105 million in pay.
some in the immediate aftermath of Deepwater Horizon predicted as much
as a 33 percent decline in tourism along the Gulf for an extended
period, and 2010 was filled with reports of nearly empty hotels and
motels and heavily impacted restaurants and retail businesses, it was
by no means uniform. New Orleans, for example, received $5 million of
$15 million in tourism-marketing money BP gave Louisiana to counteract
negative publicity from the spill, and the city used that money to
advertise that it was 100 miles from the spill. And 2010, according to
Louisiana figures, turned out to be New Orleans’ best year since
Hurricane Katrina five years earlier, with 8.3 million visitors in the
second half of the year alone.
2011, by most accounts, the visitors were back, with Florida’s
Panhandle beaches reporting numbers up 61 percent over 2010, and
Alabama up 51 percent and Mississippi 7 percent. Some attribute the
rebound to ramped-up tourism marketing in the months following the BP
town councilman in Kure Beach, Emily Swearingen, was so concerned about
the potential impact of an oil spill that she went to Congress on April
15 and testified to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral
Resources during the same session that McCrory appeared and pushed to
move the 50-mile buffer in to 30 miles, and for the feds to share oil
revenue with the state. McCrory noted that Kure Beach Mayor Dean
Lamberth had supported, by letter, offshore energy development, but
Swearingen said that letter didn’t reflect the feelings of the
said in early May that on Jan. 27, 2014, more than 300 residents turned
out for a town meeting in protest of the mayor’s letter.
Any significant decline, even short-term, in tourism revenue, she said, would severely impact the town.
tax and occupancy tax receipts, she said, help pay for street
maintenance, police and fire service, among other things, in Kure
Beach. The municipality shares Pleasure Island with another town,
Carolina Beach, and together, they generate more than $120 million a
year in income. Another $11 million comes from charter and head boats
and seafood processing and packing, which also would be impacted if oil
were found in the area offshore and an accident occurred.
“People would lose jobs and homes and businesses,” she said. “We can’t afford that. It just isn’t worth the risk.”
A relatively small accident – like the four-mile-long oil strip on the beaches of Santa Barbara, Calif., after an onshor
pipeline burst two days before the Memorial Day Weekend – would cause
significant hardships, and a Deepwater-scale disaster would cause
also historical basis for this concern. The red tide in 1987, some say,
might be an instructive case. The dinoflagellate algae bloom came in on
Halloween day that year, swept north from the Gulf off Florida, where
red tides are common.
algae, first spotted in Emerald Isle on the central coast, eventually
forced the closing of more than 350,000 acres of shellfishing waters
from Hatteras Island to Calabash, near the South Carolina border. The
problem persisted for more than six months, to varying degrees in
varying locations. An estimated 9,000 commercial fishermen were out of
work, and figures prepared by the state for disaster relief estimated
$4.5 million in losses by December.
addition, official estimated hotels and motels, big and small, during
this peak fall fishing season, lost $200 to $2,500 a day; restaurants,
$200 to $1,800 a day.