‘Boro Readies for Rising Sea

Yes, it’s a mouthful – Vulnerability, Consequences and Adaptation Planning Scenarios – that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue or inspire much excitement. In fact, it sounds like something that ranks just behind root canals and colonoscopies on life’s joy scale.

Had its developers been more attuned to marketing they would have devised a name that could be boiled into an alarming acronym, like STORM, WET, YIKES or some such. But they were scientists and VCAPS is what they gave us.

By any name, though, this is important stuff. In fact, it may be the best thing we have to prepare for the coming flood.

The band-aid approach: Sand bags offer this house at New River Inlet in North Topsail Beach temporary protection from the rising Atlantic.

Because the seas are rising.

The ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica continue to melt as the air and water around them warms. There’s no stopping them at this point. In fact, that melting will get worse as the century grinds on. Ice, of course, turns to water, which flows into the oceans. Even as big as they are, the world’s oceans can hold just so much water. Think of a bath tub. Fill it up and water spills over the side, covering streets in Miami and toppling houses in Nags Head.

Scientists expect the Atlantic to be a foot higher in 2050 and three feet higher by the end of the century than it is today. I think those, in the end, will be low-ball estimates. Six or seven feet by 2100 seems more likely. This will go on for centuries and change the world. A career tip for young students: Good cartographers will be in great demand.

But let’s think local for a minute. Here’s a visualization exercise for my neighbors in Swansboro: Take a tape measure and stand at the foot of Church Street at the edge White Oak River. Go at high tide. Splay out the tape vertically from the water’s surface. Where would the water be if it were a foot higher? Around your ankles? Three feet higher? Seven feet higher? What would happen to the docks and shops along Front Street? To the street itself? To downtown?

Now, you get some idea of what our descendants will face.

Since averting the flood is now just a fanciful wish, adapting to it is our only rational course. That’s what VCAPS is all about.

It’s a planning method that was developed by the federal Sea Grant program, the University of South Carolina and the Social and Environmental Research Institute. At it’s barest, it allows communities to assess the risks they face from increased flooding and higher storm surges so that they can then take steps now to minimize them. Climate change “adaptability” or “resilience,” they call it, and it’s a burgeoning field among planning professionals.

Swansboro is in the middle of a VCAPS assessment. We’re one of about 19 seaside cities and towns in the country that will have gone through a VCAPS process. Others in the state include Nags Head, Plymouth and Hyde County. Their plans took more than a year to devise. They were major commitments of time and money that involved dozens of meetings. Duplicating that effort in every community faced with the threat of rising seas isn’t realistic. Can the process be streamlined but still be effective?

We’ll find out here in Swansboro, the first community in the state to include a VCAPS assessment as part of our updated land-use plan. The N.C. Division of Coastal Management, which helps communities prepare their state-mandated plans, thinks it’s a good idea to include the effects of climate change in future land-use plans. It has given us a little bit of money toward that goal and is organizing the VCAPS effort, which will take about six months to coincide with our land-use plan update.

We’ve met a couple of times with state officials and folks from the Sea Grant program at N.C. State University, a leader in VCAPS planning, and from the Nature Conservancy, a non-profit that helps communities prepare for sea-level rise.

At our first meeting in July, we huddled around a big map of Swansboro. We identified areas that flood now during storms or extreme high tides and places we think will flood in the future. We marked sites, like the Public Safety Building and Town Hall, that must remain functioning during disasters and those that house vulnerable populations, such as schools and assisted-living centers. We paid particular attention to critical infrastructure, like N.C. 24 and the causeway, that would cripple they were flooded or in the case of the numerous sewage pump stations scattered around town would create an environmental disaster.

We got down to the real business of VCAPS at our last meeting a couple of weeks ago. Members of the Board of Commissioners and Planning Board, town staff and a few others sat down with state, Sea Grant and Nature Conservancy officials to talk about the effects storms and climate change could have on the town and the steps we could take to minimize them. This type of facilitated dialogue is at the heart of the VCAPS process. People talked among each other in small groups about what a rising sea, more frequent tropical storms, more intense rainfalls and other effects of climate change could do to Swansboro. I’m sure it was the first time many in the room thought seriously about this grim part of our future.

“The heart of this is getting at what you can do and what you don’t want to do,” Jessica Whitehead of Sea Grant told the group. She is one of VCAPS’ co-developer.

She and other Sea Grant and Nature Conservancy staff helped guide the conversations. They asked questions and took notes. They’ll summarize the four hours of talk and spirited debate into a flow chart that will include each of climate change effects, the consequences we discussed and the possible solutions.

Let’s take rising seas, as an example. It will flood streets and buildings, inject salt into the groundwater that we use as our drinking-water source, depress property values and adversely affect tourism. Those are some of the consequences. Some remedies?  Protecting inland wetlands and coastal marshes from development, encouraging the use of more natural methods of erosion control instead of bulkheads that prevent marshes from expanding to response to rising seas and discouraging intense development in flood-prone areas are some policies the town could include in its new land-use plan.

The flow chart should be completed by the end of the month. We’ll then have a public meeting to explain it all. Maybe we’ll come with a snappy name for all this by then.

To Learn More

A Cry for a Life Preserver

The numbers aren’t pretty. They paint a bleak picture of a drowning people.

In less than 12 years, 6,500 houses along the N.C. coast worth more than a $1 billion today could be flooded every other week by normal high tides. By 2060, the rising Atlantic will make dozens of coastal communities nearly uninhabitable. At least a 120,000 coastal North Carolinians could be climate refugees by the end of the century.

Like I said, grim stuff.

SLR map
The flooding predicted by the report coincides with this map produced by scientists from East Carolina University. Inland flooding from normal high tides would be particularly acute from eastern Carteret County at the bottom of the map, up through Pamlico County and the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula to Currituck County near the Virginia line.

The Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report several weeks ago that could be the script of a dystopian movie. It analyzed for the first time by zip code the effects rising seas could have on the country’s coastal communities at five points in time – 2030, 2045, 2060, 2080 and 2100. It looked at the number of existing homes that will be flooded by normal high tides as the climate continues to warm, the values of those houses and the property taxes at risk. It counted the people who could be displaced.

The scientists mean to scare you. They hope their report will then lead you to cry for a life preserver while there’s still time.

Smart people, like those who compiled this report, have been warning us for years about accelerated sea-level rise triggered by a warming climate and what it will do to buildings perched at the water’s edge, especially on a uniformly flat landscape like the N.C. coast. After Gold Coast of South Florida and the bayous of Louisiana, we may be living on the most-threatened coastline in the country.

There are several interactive, online maps that graphically display the rising water in creeping colors of red and purple. But assigning those dangers to a familiar number seems to strike closer to home. 28584, for instance. That’s Swansboro’s zip code. That’s me and my neighbors. To think that 60 houses, representing more than $20 million in current value, in the little place I call home could be regularly flooded by 2030 makes this downright scary. About 1,100 people, or almost 10 percent of the current population of our zip code, will be flooded out of their homes by 2100. As bad as that sounds, they’ll be in far, far better shape than many of their coastal neighbors.

First, Some Qualifiers

After five days of rain and the easterly winds in October 2010, water floods into Manteo from Roanoke Sound. Photo: Bideford Manteo

There are some important things to keep in mind before we go any further with this. The authors of the study assume that future flooding will reach a threshold where normal routines become impossible and coastal residents, communities and businesses are forced to make difficult, often costly, choices. They call this level of disruption “chronic inundation,” which they define as flooding that occurs 26 times a year, or about once every other week. It is important to note that this flooding is not caused by storms—it is simply the result of tides inching higher and reaching farther inland as sea levels rise.

The report also doesn’t attempt to predict future coastal development or population growth. All projections are based on current population and housing stocks. So, if anything, the numbers get more conservative as the predictions progress farther into the future.

Neither did the authors factor in sea walls, moving or raising houses or other measures that may be taken in the future to lessen the damage.

And, finally, they use the most-dire scenario. They assume that global sea-level rise will average about seven feet worldwide by 2100. That’s currently at the far end of predictions and would result if we do little to control emissions. That may sound extreme but keep in mind that sea-rise projections are forever edging upwards as the climate continues to warm and glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica continue to melt and we continue to do nothing meaningful. The current scientific consensus of three feet by 2100 was considered extreme a decade ago. A decade hence, seven feet may seem like a fond wish.

It Ain’t Just Beach Towns

If they consider the issue of rising seas at all, most people naturally think about the beach. Nags Head and Wrightsville and Ocean Isle and places like that are most endangered. The report’s numbers, though, reveal a far different reality that reflects our coast’s geography and flat topography. Much of the initial flooding occurs inland, away from the oceanfront and along the vast labyrinth of sounds, rivers and creeks. Only later are beach towns affected.

Stumpy Point, for instance, is a good 20 miles from the ocean as that crow flies. The small, unincorporated community off U.S. 264 in Dare County instead backs up to Pamlico Sound. About a third of the houses there could flood twice a month in just 12 years. Stumpy Point has, according to the study, the highest percentage of at-risk houses in the state in 2030.

down east
The historic fishing communities that stretch along U.S. 70 in eastern Carteret County could be particularly threatened.

Other inland communities aren’t far behind: Manns Harbor on Croatan Sound in Dare; Maple and its neighbor Barco along Coinjock Bay in Currituck County; Englehard in Hyde County; and Lowland and Hobucken in Pamlico County.

Chronic flooding becomes more widespread by 2060. It could threaten more than 30,000 existing homes along the N.C. coast with a current value of about $7 billion. More than 40,000 people currently live in those houses. That’s more than the population of New Bern.

The low-lying lands from eastern Carteret County, up the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula, to the Great Dismal Swamp on the Virginia border could be particularly hard hit. High tides in 2060 could threaten more than half the homes in Davis and Marshallberg in Down East Carteret. In Hyde and Tyrrell counties, 30 percent of existing homes could be regularly flooded. High tides could now reach more than a quarter of the houses in northern Currituck County bordering the swamp.

The beginning of the disintegration of the Outer Banks clearly shows up in the 2060 numbers. Almost half the houses in Frisco, Waves, Hatteras and Salvo on Hatteras Island could be subject to frequent high-tide flooding. While the effects are more limited on the higher, northern Outer Banks beaches, residential real-estate worth about $11 billion today could frequently be flooded in Nags Head, Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills.

By 2100, the destruction of the southern Outer Banks is complete. High tides could flood more than half the homes in most of the beach towns. Flooding could hit 70 percent of the houses in Rodanthe and Salvo and 85 percent in Waves. Every current resident of Avon, Frisco and Hatteras would be displaced by high tides.

Three-quarters of the current population of Hyde County would also be refugees. The old, quaint fishing villages of Down East – Davis and Marshallberg, Williston and Gloucester, Smyrna and Sealevel – could become drowned ghost towns.

The coast’s major cities could also be devastated. Property currently worth $15 billion could be inundated in Wilmington. About 7,000 people in New Bern, or about a quarter its current population, could be flooded out of their homes. Almost half the current population of Elizabeth City could become refugees.

Are you sufficiently alarmed yet? Good. That’s what the report’s authors intended.

Eight out of every 10 houses shown here in Waves on Hatteras Island will be flooded at least twice a month by 2100. Photo: Midgett Reality

Now What?

Now, they would want you to think about where we go from here.

Certainly, putting a lid on emissions is still at the top of the to-do list, but that requires national and international actions, and nothing meaningful has been done so far. We can all agree at this point that the Trump administration won’t do anything in the near term. In fact, it’s energy policies, if actually carried out, out would make things worse.

Also at the top of the list are things we can all do individually to be smarter energy consumers and to reduce our carbon footprints. We should, of course, do that and support the greener energy technologies that will eventfually replace fossil fuels. But, frankly, there’s really nothing you and I can do personally at this point that will prevent our descendants from being flooded out of their homes.

Nags Head’s climate adaptation plan was one of the first done in the state.

We can, however, prepare for the future they face. The state Division of Coastal Management has begun to take the first steps to help communities plan for the more watery future. Its teamed up with experts at N.C. State University and the Nature Conservancy to offer willing communities an opportunity to identify flood-prone areas and critical public and private infrastructure that are subject to flooding and storm damage and need to be protected. Communities can then use that information to devise protective local ordinances.

Swansboro is one of about 10 communities on the coast that have volunteered for the adaptation plan. The process just started and will probably take the rest of the year. A public meeting is planned in late August to get residents’ input. Follow this blog for more information.

It’s a good first step that every coastal community should be required to take it. The more prepared they are, the less it will cost all future taxpayers to bail them out – pun intended.

But that will take money and laws. The scope of the problem is too large for the small budgets of small communities, like Swansboro, to tackle. It will overwhelm even the largest cities. This is a problem that the state needs to tackle. This is a problem for the N.C. General Assembly.

The subject of climate change has in the past received a frosty reception in the halls of the Legislative Building. Beholden to special interest groups, legislators a few years ago even attempted to ban planning for future sea-level rise and were ridiculed worldwide for their efforts.

Now, they must step up. If they won’t, voters must replace them with people who will.

Your grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren’s futures depend on it. As the water rises around their ankles, they will wonder about our obstinacy and blindness. We should give them evidence that we haven’t totally lost our minds.

Here Are the Spreadsheet

The zip code spreadsheets in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ reports aren’t very user friendly. They lump zip codes by state with no other identifying information. Doing any kind of analysis is difficult.

Here they are, however, with the N.C. zip codes identified by locality and grouped by county. I’ve also summed up the totals by year and county.

2030 zips

2060 zips

2080 zips

2100 zips

Bad News for N.C. Coast

Bad news this week for us along the North Carolina coast: The Antarctic ice sheet is melting three times faster than it did 10 years ago, according to research published Wednesday in the journal “Nature.” If the acceleration continues – and there’s no reason to think it won’t – rising seas will begin to flood many low-lying areas of the globe far sooner than anyone had feared. After South Florida, the flat North Carolina coast is considered the most vulnerable real estate on the East Coast.

The map, produced by scientists at East Carolina University, shows areas along the Outer Banks and in northeast North Carolina, that are vulnerable to flooding from sea-level rise. A three-foot rise, which is predicted by the end of the century, would flood everything in red. Much of the Outer Banks would be underwater.

Scientists involved with the new research think we have, at best, 10 years to get our carbon emissions under control to escape the worst consequences of a changed climate.

Good luck with that.

As an old environmental reporter, I know the maxim of the trade: Don’t dwell too heavily on the negative. Give readers hope that solutions are possible.

But I’ve been writing about climate change since the 1980s, when it all sounded so fantastic and futuristic, and I must be honest. I fear it is far too late to do anything meaningful that will greatly change the future we have so foolishly and blindly blundered toward. Had we back then taken even small steps to cut our carbon emissions, we’d have a chance today to rewrite the script. At the time, though, we had a rudimentary scientific understanding of the atmosphere. The computer models we used to simulate it were crude and inconsistent. Understandably, passing policies that would affect almost every facet of life was politically impossible.

So, we predictably did nothing.

We now know a great deal more. There is no longer a scientific debate about what’s causing our atmosphere to warm and our seas to rise at a rate unseen in many thousands of years. Those computer models are now very sophisticated and have accurately predicted many of the consequences of a changing climate. If anything, they have been far too conservative. The rate of change is outpacing the assumptions and science that drive the simulations. Things are happening faster than we thought they would.

While our science has advanced, our politics has moved backwards. Climate change, like the minimum wage or health care or immigration reform, has joined the mix of rancorous politics with the two parties at opposites. One party wants to take cautious action; the other party has convinced itself that none of this is happening or, if it is, it ain’t our fault.

A cottage industry of deniers, fueled by big money from secretive donors and fossil fuel industries and supported by conservative media, sows doubt and doles out campaign contributions. It’s the playbook that the tobacco industry devised and followed for decades to forestall government action on cigarette smoking.

So, we predictably still do nothing. In fact, we go backwards. New policies to ease auto mileage standards and restrictions on coal-fired power plants will only make things worse. Pulling out of the Paris Accord and removing climate data from government websites are signs that none of this will change soon.

So, we will continue to do nothing.

A spring tide in March 2018 flooded N.C. 12 in Avon on Hatteras Island.

But physics doesn’t care. No matter what the political parties believe, no matter who sits in the Oval Office, ice will continue to melt at 32 degrees.

When the glaciers melt, the sea rises. In the past century, it has risen nine inches. A third of that rise occurred in the last 23 years. By 2060, it’s predicted to rise another two feet, with no sign of slowing down. Think about that. Water levels could easily be two feet higher in 40 years. And scientists say that’s a conservative estimate. Dramatic change is now decades not centuries away.

N.C. 12 on the Outer Banks now regularly floods during minor storms. King tides now invade the streets of downtown Manteo and Wrightsville Beach. Saltwater now pollutes groundwater, threatening water supplies all along the coast and farming in Hyde, Tyrrell and other low-lying counties. Oysters now grow in some front yards in Swansboro, fed by the saltwater pushing up storm drains.

And this is only the beginning.

While we may be unable to change the future, we can prepare for it.

Swansboro, I’m pleased to report, is one of the few coastal towns in the state that is taking the first steps to do that. We have partnered with the N.C. Division of Coastal Management, the Sea Grant program at N.C. State University, the Nature Conservancy and the N.C. Coastal Federation to begin looking for ways to adapt the to changing world. For the rest of the year, we’ll identify areas in town that are particularly vulnerable to flooding and storm damage and devise possible policies to lessen that future damage. Any policies would then be considered by the Board of Commissioners for adoption as amendments to our land-use plan, which is also being revised.

The adaptability study is just beginning, and there will be several public meetings later in the year. I’ll keep you posted here.

(NOTE: While I welcome your comments, I won’t allow this space or may Facebook page to be used to further the false debate about the causes of climate change. We can debate what the consequences might be and what we should do about them, but I’ll delete any comments that argue it isn’t happening, regardless of the sources or bogus science cited. Let me apologize in advance if that offends you, but these are my pages and I make the rules.)


Someone Is Watching

Brown water pours out of the silt bag. The pipe leading from the pump is attached to the bag at the upper right-hand corner.

Wetlands can be a real pain in the butt if you’re a developer trying to build something in them. They must be ditched and pumped dry and topped with tons of dirt. Despite your best efforts they get soggy again come the first good rain.

The developers of the Dollar Tree and Verizon stores on N.C. 24 here in Swansboro are finding out just how stubborn wetlands can be. They chose a site that is about half wetland. They’ve been pumping them for weeks, dumping the water in a storm ditch along Main Street Extension. When they started clearing the site and disturbing the soil a few weeks ago, the discharge turned the color of chocolate milk, which seemed to violate the state’s turbidity standards. Those rules prohibit visible off-site sediment from any land-disturbing activity.

That water ran through the ditch, went under the road, through the Ace Hardware property, then under N.C. 24 and eventually into Halls Creek. The creek is designated by the state as a shellfish-growing water body. It’s already considered polluted by stormwater runoff.

A sample of the water pouring out of the bag is dark brown Monday.

Sedimentation is one of the leading causes of water pollution. It leads to fish kills, clogged streams, reduced storage volume of reservoirs and added filtration costs for our municipal water supplies. The smaller soil particles remain suspended in the water. These suspended particles block out light filtering through the water, reducing photosynthesis and altering the ecology of our streams.

I took some pictures and a couple of samples of the water coming out of the discharge pipe and sent them to Holley Snider, an inspector with the N.C.  Division of Energy, Minerals and Land Resources. The division enforces the sediment standards. Snider told me that the pictures seemed to indicate a problem. She spoke with the developer, Chris Bailey of Jacksonville, and visited the site on a day when no pumping was going on. She suggested that Bailey place a big nylon bag at the end of the pipe to filter sediment out of the discharge.

Bailey complied. But I had my doubts. These silt bags don’t do a very good job at capturing the finer sediments. After a heavy downpour early yesterday morning, my fears were confirmed. Black water poured from the bloated sediment bag and down the ditch along Main Street extension.

This time I brought a turbidity tube with me. Turbidity is a measure of the cloudiness of water. The higher the turbidity, the harder it is to see through the water. Turbidity measurements are reported in nephelometric turbidity units (NTU) or Jackson turbidity units (JTU). Different units are used depending on which method is chosen to measure turbidity. The two units are roughly equivalent and can be used interchangeably for field purposes.

With the naked eye, an average person can begin to see turbidity levels starting at around 5 NTU and greater. Lakes that are considered relatively clear in the United States can have a turbidity up to 25 NTU. If water appears muddy, its turbidity has reached at least 100 NTU. At 2,000 NTU, water is completely opaque. Water bodies in North Carolina with NTU of more than 50 are in violation of water quality standards.

Keep those numbers in mind.

The discharge from the construction site, right, contrasts with the clearer runoff flowing down an unaffected side ditch.

The clear plastic tube is about two inches in diameter and about four feet tall. At the bottom is a black and white disk. You pour your sample into the tube until you can no longer see the disk from the top of the tube. A scale on the side gives you the NTU measurement.

I poured less than a half inch of the water coming out of the silt bag into the tube and the disk disappeared. That corresponded to NTU greater than 250, the limit of the tube’s measurements.

I also measured the runoff in a side ditch not affected by the discharge. It had a NTU of 30. Where the two streams met, the difference was stark.

I took more pictures and sent them to Snider. I suggested that pumping the wetlands be stopped until a way is found to keep mud out of our creeks. She sent my photos on to Bailey and to Gary Pope of Johnson Grading who is doing the site work along with this email:

“Gary, per our phone conversation, please provide me with an update of the conditions of the site in response to this email, a copy of the required report from last night’s rainfall event and any additional measures being taken to reduce/limit turbid water from leaving the site.  It may be necessary to cease and desist pumping water, including water thru the silt bag, if the water that is leaving the site would result in a violation of the State’s water quality standards.”

The pumping stopped Monday afternoon.

We in Swansboro passed a tough watershed plan last year that commits the town to reducing the flow of polluted stormwater runoff into our surrounding waters. We instituted an annual stormwater utility fee a couple of years ago. Every property owner in town now contributes to help fund ways to reduce flooding and the flow of water pollution.

Everyone must do their part, including those who choose to build in our town. They should know that someone is watching.

Sunday Sermon: Live with Creation

I was walking Sawyer, our daughter’s sweet spaniel mix, on this blustery, cold Sunday morning. As is our wont, we ended up at our community boat ramp where we both like to sit awhile at the end of the dock to watch the river’s life go by. We’re usually rewarded with jumping mullet, diving terns and, at certain times of the year, the occasional pod of porpoises breaking the surface with the gentle whoosh of expelling air.

This morning, though, an adjoining property owner was busily and noisily at work in the marsh behind his house, hacking away at the grasses with his weed eater, cutting them down to the ground to conform with his manicured lawn.

Feeling charitable on this day of rest, I told Sawyer, there, my boy, is a man who truly knows not what he does.

salt marshBack during my time with N.C. Coastal Federation, I would field calls this time of year from waterfront property owners who wanted to know if they could cut down the marsh grasses bordering the water. My first question was always the same: Why? I’ve yet to hear a reasonable answer.

A variety of plants fringe the borders of our saltwater estuaries: Cordgrasses, black needle rush, sea lavender, spike grass. There, where the tide ebbs and flows each day, hundreds of kinds of invertebrates crawl through the muck. Fiddler crabs, hermit crabs, stone crabs and blue crabs join snails, mussels and worms looking for food and shelter. Fish and shrimp are there as well in search of food and a place to lay their eggs.

Egrets and herons stalk the high grasses to spear a meal. Willets nest in there, and a variety of songbirds flit through cordgrass and needlerush, filling the marsh with their melodious symphony.

Because of their importance to the health of our estuaries, these saltwater marsh grasses are protected by state law. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to prevent a guy from going out there on a Sunday morning on foot with a weed wacker or scythe to mow them down. Had he been using a lawn mower or tractor, he would have gotten a visit tomorrow from an enforcement official. Cutting ruts through the marsh is illegal.

I used to tell the people who called me that even if they don’t care about the birds and the fish and such, they should be worried about their waterfront homes. Numerous studies have confirmed the effectiveness of a healthy saltmarsh in preventing flood damage. In the largest laboratory experiment ever constructed to investigate this phenomenon, researchers at Cambridge University have shown that over 120 feet, the salt marsh reduced the height of large waves in deep water by 18 percent, making them an effective tool for reducing the risk of coastal erosion and flooding. The marsh plants alone accounted for 60 percent of that reduction, the study found.

Those people who called usually said they wanted to cut down the marsh grasses so that they could see water better, as if something that rarely grows taller than three feet obscures the view.

My advice was also always the same: Consider yourself fortunate to be able to live by the sea. You have a front-row seat to the majestic beauties of creation. Learn to appreciate  it, instead of wrestling with it unendingly to make it conform to your world. The birds will thank you and so will the fish. You’ll look like a genius when the next hurricane comes roaring by. I intend to tell my neighbor the same thing the next time I see him.

The Fix Is In

RALEIGH – It was more like an oil-industry conference. And a cheesy one at that.

The “listening session” that the U.S. Interior Department sponsored a couple of weeks ago on President Trump’s proposal to open virtually the entire U.S. coastline to oil and natural gas drilling featured placards that informed us what oil is and why it’s important to the country. No warnings about spills, no pictures of burning rigs or oil-coated cormorants. A handful of smiling government experts politely answered questions and directed people to laptops if they wanted to submit comments. A sign warned that all such comments should be based on facts, not emotions.

It all was terribly boring, not very informative and ultimately not worth the drive. I got the impression that’s the way they wanted it.

I drove away from the North Raleigh Hilton on that cold, wet afternoon with one, dreary conclusion: The fix is in.

oil rally
Hundreds of opponents packed a rally in Raleigh to oppose offshore drilling. Photo: N.C. Policy Watch

Understand that we shouldn’t even be talking about this right now. The federal government two years ago approved a five-year, offshore leasing plan that ends in 2022. Widespread opposition along the East Coast forced Interior, which manages drilling leases three or more miles from shore, to exclude the Atlantic Ocean in its approved plan.

But Trump signed an unprecedented executive order in April to reopen that plan to allow leasing “to the maximum extent permitted by law.” That means just about everywhere, including off the N.C. coast.

The first step in the process outlined in federal law is to accept public comments on the environmental review that the law also requires. Thus, the “listening sessions.”

I had gone to Raleigh as Swansboro’s mayor pro temp to submit into the official federal record the resolution the town passed last year opposing offshore drilling. But no one there could take it. They pointed me to the computers. One smiling, young Interior official informed me that I would have to travel to Washington if I wanted to hand deliver it.

In the past, I would have joined hundreds of people in a packed meeting room. We would have all been given an opportunity to step to a microphone and say our piece before a federal hearing officer and, yes, hand over anything we wanted. All our documents and comments would have become part of the official record.  Back then, the meetings were called hearings and they would last hours. They could be loud and, yes, sometimes, rude. Like democracy, they could be messy.

Clearly, that’s not what the Interior Department wanted when it scheduled these listening sessions in 23 capital cities in coastal states across the country. As in those other places, hundreds of drilling opponents showed up in Raleigh, but the session’s format discouraged any official outbursts of boisterousness. So, as in those other places, opponents repaired to the opposite end of the hotel to hold a loud, rousing rally decorated by signs and banners and punctuated by invective. But all out of range of Interior officials.

The department avoided holding these sessions in coastal locations where residents are most at risk and where emotions are the highest. That’s also by design. When it last collected comments on the environmental assessment two years ago, Interior held four meetings in North Carolina, including three here on the coast. While they were similar in format to these “listening sessions,” those meetings were less scripted, manned by more officials and included information on environmental and social risks and alternative energies.

But why replicate that effort and spend the money if the decision has already been made? Unlike the last time, it’s hard to believe that what’s going on now is a honest attempt to gauge public sentiment or to assess risks. Forgive me for refusing to believe that this president, who has eliminated protection for public lands, turned the Environmental Protection Agency into a shill for industry and cut regulations, cares about sea turtles, fishing grounds, migrating whales or oil-covered beaches. Forgive me for failing to trust that this Interior secretary who has proposed opening public lands to drilling and mining and who, along with deputies, has met 180 times with oil-industry executives will protecti our natural resources?

To reach any other conclusion that this environmental assessment will determine that drilling is good for us is laughable. So is thinking that what they’re doing now is anything more than merely going through the motions of meeting legal requirements.

While I expect Interior to race through the study, don’t expect to see rigs appear off our coast any time soon. The many irregularities in Interior’s process guarantees legal challenges. And no oilman who must answer to shareholders will attempt to drill in a virgin territory like the Atlantic with oil selling below $50 a barrel and when a glut of natural gas has those prices at historic lows.