Debate over seismic testing off NC coast on the horizon - WNEM TV 5

Debate over seismic testing off NC coast on the horizon

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CAROLINA BEACH, N.C. - A plan by the federal government could change the landscape of the North Carolina coast.

While millions of people flock to our beaches each year, the Obama administration has approved the use of seismic testing to conduct research on the ocean floor along most of the East Coast, including here in North Carolina.

From Cape Fear to the Outer Banks, North Carolina's beaches have a charm all their own.

Ginger Haithcock of Mebane, said, “I’ve been coming to Carolina Beach ever since I was about this big.”

For Haithcock, it's a charm that has meant a front row seat to history.

“I came here during World War II, when the soldiers were here and everything,” she said. “It’s just like a home place to me.”

And when you talk about the beaches, home means a lot of different things.

Not just the sand, but the shops, the piers, the docks, and, of course, the ocean itself.

Lindsey Deignan of the Cape Fear Surfrider Foundation, said, “We really pride ourselves on the beauty of our coastline and the enjoyment of our coastline. And we want to make sure that’s protected.”

The Surfrider Foundation is a non-profit dedicated to protecting the oceans and beaches.

Deignan is worried that a storm is brewing – one that she says is man-made.

As early as next year, North Carolina and several other Eastern seaboard states could see seismic testing off of the shoreline.

“This immediately stood out to us as opposition to our main mission,” Deignan said.

Dr. Lawrence Cahoon, a marine biology professor at UNC-Wilmington, said seismic testing off the shores of North Carolina is the first of a series of steps toward possible development of offshore oil and gas resources.

He served on a legislative committee in 2009 to study whether North Carolina should drill offshore.

Cahoon is very familiar with seismic testing.

“They create a very loud bang with air guns,” Cahoon said.

Here's how it works. About 50 to 60 miles out to sea, a ship would travel with air guns in tow. The ship then sends sound waves into the water that would go to the bottom and then penetrate the ocean floor. Those same waves would read what resources are in the ground, sending the information back to the ship on the surface.

David McGowan of the North Carolina Petroleum Council said, “This is new territory for us as a state.”

McGowan said, “We really need to know and understand what the resource is, how much resource is it, where it is and what type of resource it is.”

The decision is a federal one that involves the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management and the Department of Interior. In February, the bureau released its final environmental impact statement, potentially clearing the way for seismic testing to begin.

It's possible North Carolina could see offshore drilling 10 or 15 years from now.

One fisherman, Seth Hewlett of Pelagic Magic in Wrightsville Beach, is ready to get going.

“Come on – let’s start next week,” Hewlett said.

He believes oil rigs will mean good things for business.

“You’ve got your structure, which holds bait, which brings smaller fish, which brings your bigger fish,” he said. “If you look at the oil rigs in the Gulf, in Louisiana and down there, they have some of the best fishing in the world because of those rings.”

McGowan said that with offshore drilling, North Carolina could see 55,000 jobs and $4 billion in annual revenue by 2035.

“It’s going to have a profound economic impact,” McGowan said.

Those figures could grow, he said, if the federal government decides to share the revenue. And that’s something Wilson County Sen. Buck Newton believes the state should strongly lobby the federal government to do.

“If that were to happen, that could be, over time, billions and billions of dollars that would come to the state of North Carolina,” Newton said. “It would help us with teachers and schools and roads and community colleges.”

But there are environmental concerns...particularly to marine life, like whales and dolphins. There's concern the seismic testing could knock out their hearing.

“They use sense of hearing to find prey, to find mates, to avoid ships,” said Cahoon.

“This isn’t industry,” McGowan said. “This is the federal government that has comes to the conclusion that the seismic surveying can be done safely with the proper mitigation techniques.”

That means avoiding testing in migratory areas and stopping whenever a marine mammal is detected.

Some say that sounds good on paper, but may not be as effective in practice.

Cahoon said, “You would think something as big as a whale would be easy to spot, and I’m here to tell you it’s not so.”

There is also a question about how the testing and any future drilling would impact tourism on the coast.

Mo Linquist, a business owner of Artful Living Group, said, “Right away, I said, ‘This is not good.’”

Linquist owns a design studio and gift shop at Carolina Beach. She gives out literature against seismic testing. She believes the environmental concerns and the prospect of oil rigs off the coast will keep the tourists away.

That’s an opinion shared by Tim Williams, who was visiting from Kansas.

“If they have an issue, then, no, I wouldn’t spend the money to get myself back out here,” Williams said.

Lindquist is concerned that testing and drilling could impact her business.

“It would be a losing situation for everyone,” she said.

There's clearly a debate on the horizon.

“I think it would be great,” Wrightsville Beach resident Robin Spinks said. “I think it would be wonderful.”

But Haithcock said, “Anything that might hurt the environment, I have to question it.”

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