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Oil and water do not mix, but only economic arguments will reign supreme in the fight against off-shore oil drilling along the southeastern states. The politics in North Carolina, heavily weighted toward corporate interests, favor energy development. The existence or importance of climate change is questioned by many, especially those who like to drive big SUVs to the beach on weekends. About the only argument that I can see holding any water will come from those well-heeled individuals who hold coastal real estate or who wish to develop coastal areas for others to enjoy. The economics of NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) may prevail if these land owners worry about the risk of oil derricks silhouetted by the morning sunrise or an oil-soaked beach in their front yard. If they take the long-view, these landowners will connect the use of fossil fuels to sea-level rise, also threatening their coastal land holdings.
Lessons from the Deep-Water Horizon or Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are instructive. Phytoplankton biomass in the waters of the Gulf was 85% lower after the oil spill. Some of the reduction may have been caused by the massive use of oil dispersants—Corexit 9500TM—to disperse the 5 million barrels of oil that flowed from the seabed. Lower phytoplankton biomass translates directly into lower fish and shellfish populations, which feed on phytoplankton.
The catch of fish after the oil spill was also lower due to the reduced effort of fisherman, so we may never know the direct impact of the oil itself. Overall impacts on the catch of fish and shellfish in the Gulf of Mexico are estimated at $2.5 billion for the three years after the spill. It is clear that a similar spill off the coast of North Carolina would impact the commercial and sport-fishing industry that is enjoyed by so many.
As in the case of most oil spills, oil washed onto beaches and marshes along the Gulf Coast, coating a variety of birds that eventually died. Dead birds are drama. Oil on the beaches had a huge impact on the tourist industry along the Gulf of Mexico, which has taken years to recover. Estimated losses are as large as $23 billion. We can expect similar losses should a catastrophic oil spill occur off the Outer Banks. When German U-boats sank oil tankers along the North Carolina coast in World War II, oil persisted on the beaches for decades.
Much of the anticipated profit from off-shore oil discoveries in North Carolina would flow to oil companies that are headquartered in other states. It is certainly not clear if the local jobs created would pump more money into the coastal economy than what might be lost in the fisheries, recreation, and tourist industries—even without a catastrophe. We should ferret out the influence of out-of-state corporate money when our elected officials consider off-shore oil drilling.
Some believe that accidents never happen and that we can have it all. But, we all know that accidents will happen. Those who know the value of renewable natural resources will be more thoughtful.
Haney, J.C., H.J. Geiger, and J.W. Short. 2015. Bird mortality from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I. Exposure probability in the offshore Gulf of Mexico. Marine Ecology Progress Series 513: 225-237.
Joye, S.B. 2015. Deepwater Horizon, 5 years on. Science 349: 592-593.
Kleindienst, S., M. Seidel, K. Ziervogel, S. Grim, K. Loftis, S. Harrison, S.y. Malkin, M.J. Perkins, J. Field, M.L. Sogin, T. Dittmar, U. Passow, P.M. Medeiros, and S.B. Joye. 2015. Chemical dispersants can suppress the activity of natural oil-degrading microorganisms. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences doi/10.1073/pnas.1507380112.
Parsons, M.L., W. Morrison, N.N. Rabalais, R.E. Turner, and K.N. Tyre. 2015. Phytoplankton and the Macondo oil spill: A comparison of the 2010 phytoplankton assemblage to baseline conditions on the Louisiana shelf. Environmental Pollution 207: 152-160.