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Offshore drilling emerges as issue in N.C. races

The nation inched closer to increased offshore drilling last Tuesday when the United States House of Representatives passed an energy bill that would allow states to decide about drilling in their waters.

Currently there is a congressional moratorium on any new offshore drilling leases. The Comprehensive American Energy Security and Consumer Protection Act would lift that moratorium if the Senate passes it as well. The bill follows the impact Hurricane Ike had on drivers' wallets across the country, prompting candidates up for election in November to take stances on a potential domestic source of energy: the continental shelf.

"It's an election year, which means that it is silly season for politicians," Michael Munger, the Libertarian candidate in the North Carolina Gubernatorial race and chair of the department of political science at Duke University, said in a press release. "The supporters of new drilling are promising miracles, and the opponents are predicting disaster.... They are both exaggerating for their own political purposes."

Munger's plan takes a hands-off approach, asserting that "the increased price of oil and gas will solve this problem for us, if we let it" by driving down demand and opening up new supplies. His plan does not address environmental concerns.

Pat McCrory, Republican nominee for governor and mayor of Charlotte, believes "just the threat of drilling would reduce prices immediately," Amy Auth, communications director for McCrory's gubernatorial campaign, wrote in an e-mail.

She said McCrory also supports drilling in the Manteo Project region, an area Mobil Oil attempted to tap into during the '80s and '90s until North Carolina forced the company to abandon its efforts through a lawsuit.

Moreover, McCrory would petition the federal government for the right to drill for oil off its coast and receive 37.5 percent of the revenue.

States receive all royalty fees from drilling within the first three miles off their coast. But after that, they can currently only receive up to a quarter of the royalty fee-with the rest going to the federal government, Orbach said.

The House's bill would not give any royalty fees to states, leading some politicians to label it as a "hoax."

Auth also noted that "tourism in Eastern North Carolina will be positively affected by lower energy prices and jobs would be created in the areas where they are needed most."

But Michael Orbach, professor of the practice of marine affairs and policy at the Nicholas School of the Environment, said skilled workers are typically brought in from other places, "so it doesn't often create very much local employment."

He added that tourism could be hurt not only by disturbing sites in the ocean, but also because of associated land development.

"Really one of the biggest impacts of offshore ocean drilling is onshore, where you have the staging facilities for development, and you have the processing facilities for the product you bring back," Orbach said.

Although Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, Democratic nominee for governor, said in a June press release that she is "100 percent opposed" to drilling off the coast of North Carolina, she said in an August ad that she supports offshore drilling, but only in lands currently available to oil and gas companies.

The Perdue campaign could not be reached for comment.

Incumbent Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole echoed some of McCrory's sentiments, noting on her blog that she helped introduce the Gas Price Reduction Act, which would remove the Congressional moratorium, give states the option to drill no closer than fifty miles from shore and give states 37.5 percent of the royalty revenues.

Dole's opponent, Sen. Kay Hagan, has expressed similar views on offshore drilling.

She supports legislation by the "Gang of 20," a group of bipartisan senators who favor ending the congressional moratorium and giving states the option to allow drilling adjacent to their territorial waters, said Hagan press secretary Dave Hoffman.

He added that the group also stresses moving investments from oil and gas to renewable energy.

Dole also supports the "Gang of 20" legislation, according to The (Raleigh) News & Observer.

Dole's campaign was not available for comment.

"Given our current known reserves, it looks as if we're going to start getting into real supply difficulties in about forty to fifty years," Orbach said.

He added that setting up a new drilling project would take at least a decade and, according to many economists, only decrease gas prices by about two cents per gallon.

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