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Currituck board must 'get smart' on drilling

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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ignore it and maybe it will go away. That sounds like the advice an aloof neighbor might give for a stray dog that has wondered onto your property — just days before the animal kills YOUR dog or cat.

It also sounds a lot like how the Currituck County Commissioners view the issue of whether drilling for oil and gas a few miles off the coast might affect the county.

It's astonishing that the board decided during their recent retreat not to take a stand on offshore drilling now that the federal government has opted to allow it off of North Carolina's coast. With all the implications it brings, the lack of sufficient interest by commissioners to provide guidance on this issue is a disservice to the county's current and future residents.

Gov. Roy Cooper is on record opposing drilling off our coast and has asked the federal government to remove the state from the approved list of locations open for drilling. That position follows a long history of North Carolinians opposing drilling on the state's coastline. It's a tradition held sacred for several very good reasons, the most obvious of which is protection of the state's vast coastal environment — the ocean, beaches, sounds, rivers, etc., which are a mammoth driver of the state economy, contributing about $3 billion annually. And for many coastal counties — Currituck among them — the revenue generated by beach tourism is responsible for keeping taxes low while providing for a well-funded education system, county services and a lot of other benefits that most inland communities can't afford.

What happens, as seen in the experiences in several places where oil from drilling or spill accidents have occurred, is not just the environmental damage to the oceans and waterways, but the severe, often long-term soiling of the very beaches that bring in tourists — tourists who see media images of an oil-strewn beach where they’ve spent the last few summers — and, uh oh, they're going somewhere else this summer. And with them go the dollars they planned to spend at local accommodations, restaurants, shops and entertainment venues.

Several commissioners at the retreat even acknowledged the potential damage that could result from a drilling accident. Board Chairman Bobby Hanig claimed he's “scared to death” of the possible damage to the county's beaches and that the county “would be dead in the water” if such a disaster occurred.

Others agreed. Commissioner Paul Beaumont, however, took a different view. Beaumont said the board isn't "smart enough to know what the potential risks are one way or the other.” He said he wouldn't take a stand for or against. And that was it, as other commissioners went along without taking a position. One commissioner, Kitty Etheridge, wasn't present for the discussion because she had to leave the retreat to attend a funeral.

The last thing members of Currituck's board should be or admit to being — which apparently they have done by following Beaumont's example — is not "smart enough" about an issue as grievously important to the county as potential damage to the ocean, the beaches and the tourism industry that injects in excess of $160 million into the county economy each year, supports about 1,700 jobs and a payroll of about $30 million.

If they don't know enough by now about offshore drilling, they should call on the experts covering both sides of the issue to find out what they need to know. In addition, the matter is worthy of a public hearing to get input from residents. They should do whatever it takes to get "smart enough" to have an informed opinion and a position on offshore drilling. As commissioners, they have an obligation to be “smart enough.”

Agreeing or not agreeing to oil and gas exploration off our coast is not like approving or disapproving parking fees or a utility services rate hike, although we hope they would care enough to at least dig into the costs and justifications. When it comes to the matter of protecting the coastline, commissioners are making a decision that could affect the county for generations. The current board could be long gone when the first ball of oil tar washes ashore several years in the future. That's why it's important now to take the time to "get smart" enough about drilling for oil off the coast and what if could mean to the county.

The Daily Advance

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