As a state government reporter, I’ve covered hundreds of committee meetings and legislative debates during the past six years.
I’m bothered when I leave one of those events with the feeling that the discussion was one-sided, especially when the issue is highly controversial. It doesn’t happen all that often, which is why it’s noticeable when it does.
That’s how I felt last week, as I walked out of a meeting where an energy policy committee of the General Assembly heard an update on offshore drilling possibilities off the coast of North Carolina.
The message came from Jenny Kelvington, the recently appointed executive director for energy at the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, formerly known as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Kelvington leads the DEQ’s new Energy Group, which is responsible for developing policy that “protects the environment and promotes clean, reliable and affordable energy resources,” according to a news release.
Her comments to the Joint Legislative Commission on Energy Policy clearly favored drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. And they came from an official at the DEQ, the agency charged with ensuring appropriate regulations are in place to protect the environment.
The agency has made no secret of its “all-of-the-above” approach to energy strategy in North Carolina, based on Gov. Pat McCrory’s wishes.
In a video announcing the new Energy Group and Kelvington’s appointment, DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart explained why he believed pursuing new forms of energy is so important.
“I fully support the governor’s energy initiative, and I feel very strongly that affordable energy is vital to growing the economy, maintaining good quality of life and bringing us closer to energy independence,” he said. “Affordable energy is also a very powerful weapon against poverty.”
Kelvington’s presentation to the energy policy committee seemed in lockstep with that strategy. She mentioned the environment a few times, but always in the context of saying offshore drilling can be done safely. She focused on the potential benefits of such an industry to the state.
She told legislators that it would be 2030 to 2035 before the first oil and gas are extracted off of North Carolina’s coast, with production for 20 to 40 years after that. Decades-old data, she said, suggest 8 to 9 billion barrels of oil could be brought to shore from off the coast. Most of the reserves are in deep waters, too deep to reach in the past.
She said modern techniques for locating that oil and gas will allow the industry to “develop the mid-Atlantic in a more economical and environmentally sound manner.”
And Kelvington added that she expects the seismic surveys that look for oil and gas under the ocean floor can be done without impacts to marine populations. That has been disputed.
And the industry could provide more than 50,000 jobs in North Carolina and bring significant revenues to the state.
When she finished her report, another reporter sitting nearby leaned over and said, “That sounded like a high school presentation.”
I was thinking more like a high school debate, but with only one side allowed to speak.
Obviously, it’s very early in this discussion, and offshore drilling could provide many benefits to North Carolina. But it’s a little disconcerting that the deck already seems stacked in favor of offshore drilling, by the very agency that’s supposed to protect the environment.
Both sides must come out — sooner rather than later.