In his first State of the State address this week, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory called for moving forward with oil and gas exploration off the state's coast, reporting that he's teamed up with fellow Republican governors Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Bob McDonnell of Virginia to ask the Obama administration to support the effort.
McCrory's statement got a prolonged standing ovation from the GOP supermajority that now controls the N.C. General Assembly, where lawmakers are considering legislation that would speed up the move to inland gas drilling and also take steps to encourage offshore operations.
However, McCrory's plans for what he would do with any potential revenue from offshore drilling suggest either a lack of understanding on his part about the industry's coastal impacts or a disregard for the fact that his proposed solution would actually make the problem worse.
Besides using the revenue to repair infrastructure, dredge ports and fund education, McCrory said he wanted to use it to "replenish beaches" -- but offshore drilling would actually increase the need for beach replenishment by speeding coastal erosion.
To understand the connection between offshore drilling and coastal land loss, the governor might consider the lessons of Louisiana, which accounts for 80 percent of the nation's coastal land loss. Every 38 minutes, Louisiana loses a chunk of coastal wetlands the size of a football field to the Gulf of Mexico. If current trends continue, the Bayou State will have lost 2,400 square miles of coastal land by 2050 -- an area larger than the state of Delaware.
A significant portion of that loss is due to offshore oil and gas industry activity -- somewhere between 40 to 60 percent, according to the experts at the Gulf Restoration Network. That's because over the past century the industry has cut numerous canals into coastal wetlands for energy exploration and navigation. The canals in turn allow saltwater from the Gulf to pour into freshwater marshes, killing trees that stabilize the soil.
Extracting oil and gas from along the coast also leads to land subsidence, which further contributes to coastal erosion. In the simplest terms, as the underground bubble of oil and gas is drained out, the land sinks.
McCrory's push for activities that would erode North Carolina's coast comes as the state is already grappling with unusually fast-rising sea levels. North Carolina and Virginia are located in what the U.S. Geological Survey has identified as a hotspot for rising waters, with sea levels along the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina's Cape Hatteras to Massachusett's Cape Cod rising three to four times faster than the global average.
Meanwhile, more intense storms due to global warming are also worsening beach erosion. And it's a costly problem: To date, North Carolina communities eager to lure tourists to the ocean's edge have undertaken over 200 beach replenishment projects at a cost of over $450 million, according to Western Carolina University's Beach Nourishment database.
If McCrory gets his way on offshore exploration, North Carolina's coastal land loss will only get worse -- and it's a problem the state won't be able to drill its way out of.