North Carolina’s coasts are safe from fossil fuel drilling — for now. An early September executive order from President Trump, which blocked drilling off the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina for the next decade, has now been expanded to include our state. The decision was announced two weeks ago by one of our senators, Thom Tillis, after he met with the president to discuss the order.
Although this decision is a win for North Carolina, it may not provide as much protection as we need, especially if Trump and Tillis are reelected. The executive order actually reverses an order from 2018, in which Trump dramatically expanded drilling off our coasts, in contrast to the Obama administration’s sharp restrictions on these activities.
Citing national security and economic growth, Trump wished to expand America’s oil production, despite historical opposition by both parties at a state level. Indeed, immediately after that announcement, then-Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, a Republican, tweeted his intention to exempt Florida from drilling.
Gov. Scott’s efforts were successful, but strangely, the original order only protected three Atlantic coast states. No explanation for this or the later expansion were given, and while most political actors, including Gov. Roy Cooper, offered only confusion about why we were excluded, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam floated the persuasive idea that Trump was discriminating against states with Democratic governors. Trump has scapegoated Democrat-led states and cities as the source of an increase in violent crime during the past year, despite the fact that Republican-led areas have seen similar increases, and the fact that crime overall is much lower than it was in the ‘90s.
Tillis lacks some credibility on this issue as well. In 2015, his first speech to the Senate advocated for oil drilling, claiming that beaches would be unaffected by oil rigs too far away to be seen. This “out of sight, out of mind” position ignored the ever-present risk of an oil spill gunking up the water and killing marine life, as well as the long-term harms to beaches caused by climate change and rising sea levels. It’s possible that Tillis has changed his mind on this issue, but in the future, he may not be able to convince future presidents, or even Trump, to protect our coasts.
A national ban of offshore oil drilling would be preferable to prevent catastrophes, like the infamous Deepwater Horizon spill, along with an attempt to limit our oil consumption in the first place, so we can avoid the dire consequences of oil consumption. Coastal ecosystems are already taxed by warming and acidifying oceans, so blocking drilling is an essential move for their long-term well being. Preventing these activities also preserves recreation and tourism on the coast, and all the economic benefits they provide.
The temporary ban has another sizable hole, in that it does nothing to restrict seismic testing: the practice of causing loud noises underwater to map out potential fossil fuel deposits. The Trump administration has claimed that, with the pause in drilling, companies have no incentive to map out resources they are barred from extracting.
However, environmentalists argue that companies have applied for seismic testing licenses even when drilling was not allowed, so they may attempt to find resources in order to gain leverage in altering drilling policy. Only one company has rescinded its application, with four others still outstanding. Given the administration’s willingness to change its mind on this issue, it certainly seems possible that companies will proceed, potentially causing harm to local wildlife being blasted with over 200 decibels of noise.
The Trump administration should seek strong legislation banning drilling and seismic testing indefinitely, as this is an area where state officials from both parties agree that the costs outweigh the potential benefits. At a time when we should be doing everything possible to reduce fossil fuel consumption, playing coy with billions of barrels of oil is the last thing we need from our government.