Heavy Summer Reading: Offshore Drilling Seismic Exploration Wind Energy Coal Ash

BY Collogan Cahoon Keith and Burdette

Four hot-button political and environmental issues penned by some of the region’s finest environmental educators.


Offshore Drilling

By Matt Collogan

Since 1940 over 50 000 oil and gas wells have been built in the Gulf of Mexico. Today 27 000 wells are abandoned some leaking crude oil and unmonitored threatening wildlife fisheries public health and tourism. In North Carolina where coastal conservation is tradition and where no offshore wells exist the prospect of offshore fossil fuel development is a growing possibility on a slippery slope albeit not at the hands of coastal locals.

The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) decides every five years where to allow lease permits for drilling off of the US coast. The next lease term runs 2017 through 2022 and offers portions of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) off of the North Carolina coast. North Carolina cannot issue lease permits for offshore drilling in federal waters. But North Carolina has authority to review proposed seismic testing and drilling applications for consistency with the state’s coastal management program. In April the NC Division of Coastal Management approved two consistency submissions from Spectrum Geo Inc. a seismic data specialist and GX Technologies a provider of advanced seismic imaging solutions a first step toward permitting for seismic surveying. Two other companies have submitted requests to NCDCM but await a ruling. All four are based in Houston although Spectrum’s entire board is Norwegian.

Environmentalists ask: How did the federal government Houston and Norway find themselves determining the fate of North Carolina’s coast?

While initially encouraging drilling BOEM is temporarily protecting North Carolina from its own state administration which is focused on fossil fuels. BOEM’s plan includes a 50-mile buffer zone along the coast where drilling is prohibited while encouraging the development of renewable energy and fisheries. As chair of the OCS Governors Coalition NC Governor Pat McCrory has been pushing to reduce or eliminate that buffer in order to allow drilling closer to land. He is correct in realizing 50 miles out drilling would practically be on the slope of the OCS and would exclude possible reserves closer to shore. At 50 miles out drilling is much more expensive and more difficult than closer to shore.

The governor’s proposal would allow drilling 30 miles from Cape Hatteras where the Gulf Stream and Labrador currents interact and could disperse any spilled oil over large areas including The Point a significant ecological location and fishing spot near Nags Head. BOEM has stated it would not redraw the leases to adjust the distances closer to shore for the 2017 plan because it would have to start the whole process over again. Oil and gas businesses are looking for existing infrastructure and realize the only logical deepwater ports for onshore oil production are Charleston SC and Norfolk Virginia — not the 600-acre state-owned site near Southport. No matter where the onshore infrastructure is located it will negatively impact valuable coastal real estate with pollution traffic pipelines and dredging equipment and diminish local quality of life and coastal heritage.

North Carolina is at a crossroads: fossil fuel dependence or renewable energy freedom. The Lazard Energy Analysis reveals in the past five years the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for generating utility-scale energy from leading solar technologies has plummeted 80 percent and the LCOE for land-based wind has plummeted 60 percent. Both solar and wind are cheaper than coal and in a growing number of places are more economical than natural gas.

Opponents say spending billions developing a nascent offshore extraction program that won’t have appreciable returns for another 25 years is irresponsible especially when considering how the polluting externalities of the drilling industry negatively affect existing coastal economies dependent on healthy environments.

Local county governments like Duplin Robeson and Pender are investing in solar farms that anchor jobs locally and provide cleaner cheaper energy. Improving efficiency building bike lanes (successful PV solar bike lanes now exist in the Netherlands) converting motor fleets to electric and diversifying the renewable energy portfolio are all actions available now and all cleaner than offshore drilling.

Matt Collogan a graduate from UNCW’s environmental studies program has worked for a decade as an environmental educator for New Hanover County Parks and Gardens Department. Originally from Silver Spring Maryland Matt has lived in North Carolina since 2002. Now self-employed as a farmer he also sits on the Tidal Creek Cooperative Board of Directors.

Surround Sound

Seismic Exploration

By Dr. Larry Cahoon

Seismic exploration is the first major step in identifying areas with the potential to hold oil and gas. It is important to recognize seismic techniques which involve producing and measuring the reflection of sound waves off of layers of sediment and rock below the sea bottom do not identify oil and gas directly. Rather seismic exploration identifies geological formations that might hold oil and gas based on what technical experts know about the reservoir capacity of different rocks and the likely heat and pressure conditions to which those rocks have been exposed.

Seismic exploration techniques have evolved since the last round of exploration off North Carolina in the late 1970s. Ships tow air guns that send powerful sound waves toward the bottom and strings of hydrophones that detect the reflected sound along survey lines. The sound imagery derived from modern seismic surveys is far more sophisticated than what was possible 35 years ago. That’s partly because the hydrophones are better and partly because the data processing algorithms and capabilities are far superior.

The primary concerns about seismic exploration derive from the intense sound produced by air guns and the impacts on marine fauna. Most of the energy from an air gun has a low frequency range that penetrates soil and rock well but some energy occurs in mid-frequency ranges more important to marine mammals for hearing and communication. The intensity of the sound especially in close proximity to the air guns is also a concern. Oceanographic conditions can actually concentrate sound energy in what submariners call the layer where mammals listening for predators and prey might lurk.

One of the major issues about seismic exploration impacts is the gap between what we know and what we need to know. Industry claims there is no evidence of significant impacts on marine life by seismic exploration. But few studies have actually examined those impacts and very few properly controlled studies have ever been conducted. We do know there is evidence of harm from loud sound in some cases and that many marine organisms not just mammals react to these sounds. Many of the species of marine mammals that appear in North Carolina waters have never been studied in any way regarding seismic or sonar impacts and there is reason to suspect they may be vulnerable. The 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act explicitly requires avoidance of harm to all marine mammals including whales dolphins seals and otters if at all possible.

About ten permit applications have been received by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management [BOEM] for seismic exploration off the US East Coast. All of them focus on North Carolina waters. Several have been approved and sent to North Carolina for consistency review. At this writing North Carolina has found two of these permit applications consistent with its coastal management program and approved them. The Marine Mammal Commission has yet to consider any of these applications so it remains to be seen if the proposed seismic exploration activities will be approved and executed.

Larry Cahoon has been a professor of biology and marine biology at UNCW since 1982. He teaches courses in biological oceanography and researches coastal ecosystems.


Wind Energy

By Zachary Keith

It was the strong coastal wind that brought the Wright Brothers to North Carolina more than 100 years ago. Today their memorial in Kitty Hawk reminds us of their historic achievement in human ingenuity and stirs the imagination of the future for wind energy in North Carolina.

A 2009 study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill concluded the wind resources off of North Carolina — 56 gigawatts (1 000MW = 1GW) — are the largest on the East Coast. That’s enough electricity to power all of North Carolina’s homes annually. It is our state’s long coastline and the gentle sloping of the ocean floor that make the North Carolina coast an ideal location for offshore wind farms.

Although the United States does not yet have any active offshore wind farms the technology is not new and has been proven to work well. European nations have been effectively generating electricity from offshore wind since the 1990s.

Offshore wind turbines work like this: the strong and constant ocean winds are converted into electricity and cables carry the electricity to shore to be transmitted to consumers via a grid system. There are 50 companies in North Carolina that make parts for onshore wind turbines like PPG Industries in Shelby that manufactures fiberglass for turbine blades. While North Carolina does not yet have an offshore wind installation offshore wind development could lead to even more investment in our state’s clean energy economy.

In 2011 the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) convened offshore wind stakeholders and initiated the siting and leasing process. Close to 50 federal state local and Native American tribal officials came together to chart North Carolina’s path forward. Since then the task force has met four times to determine the best location for turbines taking into consideration military shipping and environmental concerns. Three wind energy areas were identified in 2012.

During this period the Sierra Club and its partners held expert forums throughout the coast to engage local stakeholders. Hundreds of citizens attended these forums and local residents expressed optimism about the use of offshore wind.

In early 2015 BOEM held public meetings on the coast to gather comment on their environmental assessment for prospective wind areas. Close to 200 coastal residents turned out and a clear majority expressed their support for responsible offshore wind development.

But while citizens were expressing their support Governor McCrory’s administration requested wind farms be kept further offshore where they are less likely to be developed. At the same time the governor has pressed to bring offshore drilling closer to shore although the risks are well-documented.

In April the nation took a major step forward in the transition to a clean energy future. The United States’ first offshore wind project broke ground off the coast of Rhode Island. North Carolina is primed to take its own leap forward. Lease sales for identified wind energy areas could be approved in early 2016.

When North Carolina puts steel in the water it will be the same winds that provided the Wright Brothers the opportunity to take flight that will lift the wings of the state’s clean energy future.

Zachary Keith is the lead organizer for the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club is the nation’s oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization.


Coal Ash

By Kemp Burdette

Coal has been used to generate electricity since the late 1800s. The United States depended on this fossil fuel increasingly through the 20th century but over the last ten years this trend reversed. In 2014 roughly 39 percent of the electricity generated in the United States came from burning coal down from more than 50 percent in 2003. It is likely that this number will continue to fall due in part to the increase in natural gas production from hydraulic fracturing or fracking that is gradually replacing coal as a fuel source for power plants across the country.

Coal is a fossil fuel a non-renewable source of power like oil and natural gas. When coal is burned to produce power it leaves behind significant amounts of waste known as coal combustion residuals more commonly known as coal ash. Coal ash contains a wide array of heavy metals including many dangerous toxins. Through the combustion process these metals become highly concentrated in coal ash.

For decades power companies have used water to flush the coal ash out of power plants piping the slurry into massive open unlined storage ponds near the power plants. These ponds are almost universally situated next to rivers lakes and streams that receive discharges of excess wastewater from the ponds. In North Carolina there are 37 coal ash ponds at 14 retired converted or active coal plants operated by Duke Energy. All of these ponds are near waterways including two on the banks of the Cape Fear River: the L.V. Sutton Plant next to Sutton Lake in New Hanover County and the Cape Fear Plant in Chatham County where the Deep and Haw Rivers converge to form the Cape Fear River.

Coal ash contains a number of heavy metals including arsenic mercury chromium vanadium boron selenium thallium lead cadmium iron and manganese among others. When coal ash is stored in open unlined ponds as is the common practice these materials move into the environment when they come into contact with air or water. Dust from the disposal areas can also blow into nearby communities a potential public health hazard. Heavy metals and toxins in coal ash seep into groundwater beneath and near coal ash ponds and are directly discharged into nearby waterways when the ponds fill to capacity.

In 2013 Cape Fear River Watch Waterkeeper Alliance and the Sierra Club represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center filed lawsuits under the Clean Water Act against Duke Energy for surface water and groundwater pollution related to coal ash ponds at the L.V. Sutton Plant and later Cape Fear River Watch and the Waterkeeper Alliance took additional legal action against Duke Energy for surface water and groundwater contamination at the Cape Fear Plant.

Since the groups filed the lawsuits a number of significant events have occurred. Prompted by the groups’ citizen lawsuits the state of North Carolina filed suit against Duke Energy for groundwater contamination at every coal ash facility. Seven months after the groups sued over contamination at Wilmington’s Sutton plant a huge highly publicized spill of coal ash into the Dan River near Eden NC highlighted the danger that coal ash pond failures pose to NC waterways. In response to the spill and the subsequent investigations at other coal ash ponds in 2014-15 Duke Energy pleaded guilty to nine counts of criminal violations of the Clean Water Act and in May 2015 entered into a plea deal that would require the company to pay roughly $100 million in penalties and community service projects — one of the highest penalties in US history for environmental damage.

At the Sutton plant Duke Energy paid to install a new water system for residents of the Flemington community in New Hanover County based on fears that contamination would reach the community’s drinking water wells. Researchers at Wake Forest University found significant amounts of selenium contamination in fish in Sutton Lake. Driven by widespread citizen concern about the impacts of coal ash the NC General Assembly passed the Coal Ash Management Act in 2014 mandating the cleanup of four of the 14 sites across the state (including the L.V. Sutton site but not the Cape Fear Plant) and the prioritization of the remaining ten sites with sites receiving a high clean-up priority requiring clean up by 2029.

More recently the state of North Carolina has cited Duke with a $25 million fine for ongoing groundwater contamination at the Sutton site. In April dozens of letters were sent by the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources to residents near many of Duke’s coal ash ponds across the state advising them to not drink well water thought to be contaminated with heavy metals.

Presently Duke is working to begin cleanup at the four sites where it has been mandated by the NC General Assembly. A coalition of environmental groups is pushing Duke to clean up more of their ponds and pushing the state of NC to hold Duke accountable for surface water and groundwater contamination caused by coal ash ponds across the state.

Kemp Burdette is a Wilmington native and is the Cape Fear Riverkeeper. He is an advocate for a clean healthy and beautiful Cape Fear River.