By Andrew Dunn
Between its mountains, beaches and rolling pine forests, North Carolina is a state of immense natural beauty. But it’s also a state in desperate need for jobs everywhere outside of the I-85 corridor.
The announcement this week that North Carolina would allow a controversial new natural gas pipeline to move forward reinvigorates the battle about how to balance the two.
The state is also in the midst of political infighting over offshore drilling plans.
Those two issues join decades of debate. In recent years, environmental activists have fought everything from projects to generate electricity from wind to transmission lines to bring power to western North Carolina — with mixed success.
Here’s a look at some of the more recent battles.
Atlantic Coast Pipeline
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a proposed 604-mile underground system that would bring natural gas from the mountains of West Virginia to electrical plants in Virginia and North Carolina. A total of 186 miles would be in North Carolina.
The $5.5 billion project is a joint venture between Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Southern Company Gas.
The companies estimate that more than 17,000 jobs would be created to build the pipeline, and then about 2,000 ongoing jobs to maintain it.
But the project would also require the pipeline to go through private property — and most importantly to environmentalists, traverse more than 300 N.C. bodies of water.
The jobs would be a big deal for eastern North Carolina, one of the poorest parts of the country. Here are the most recent unemployment rates in the eight counties the pipeline would pass through:
- Northampton: 6.5% (90th out of 100 N.C. counties)
- Halifax: 7.3% (96th)
- Nash: 5.9% (83rd)
- Wilson: 7% (93rd)
- Johnston: 4.1% (16th)
- Sampson: 4.9% (63rd)
- Cumberland: 5.7% (80th)
- Robeson: 6.5% (91st)
All but Johnston County are well above the statewide rate of 4.1 percent.
But between Duke Energy’s coal ash spills and the GenX contamination in the Cape Fear River, there’s not a lot of trust between North Carolinians and energy companies. The state collected page after page of comments from people worried about downstream effects.
In the final deal, the pipeline builders are sending Gov. Roy Cooper a total of $57.8 million to help with environmental impacts.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is not a done deal quite yet, but this was the biggest hurdle they faced. The permit requires the four companies to conduct regular testing for environmental impact.
Although offshore drilling along North Carolina’s coast has been discussed for years, it took a major step toward reality when the Trump administration announced intentions to open most of the Atlantic coast to oil exploration.
It will likely take several years until specific plans are developed, but some details are already clear. The federal draft proposal says drilling could be as close as 3 miles offshore. Leases to companies looking to drill in the mid-Atlantic would likely not be offered until 2020 or 2022.
Opponents cite scientific studies claiming that very little oil is even available off North Carolina’s coast. And though it happened in 2010, the Deepwater Horizon spill is still very fresh in people’s minds. Cooper has threatened to sue to stop any offshore drilling. Numerous coastal towns have also passed resolutions against drilling.
But most Republican leaders are in favor of the plans. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest supports offshore drilling that is environmentally responsible provided that there is significant revenue sharing with state and local government, saying the drilling could bring economic benefits and thousands of jobs.
Public hearings begin in February.
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Western Carolinas Modernization Project
In early 2015, Duke Energy was proposing a new 45-mile-long transmission line that would run from Asheville to Campobello, S.C., as part of a $320 million plan to modernize energy resources in the western part of the state. Duke also planned to retire an unpopular coal-fired power plant in Asheville and replace it with natural gas facilities.
That transmission line was the sticking point. The 40-mile line would be atop 140-foot-tall poles placed every 1,000 feet — angering environmentalists who said that would kill western North Carolina’s natural beauty.
Opposition was particularly fierce in Buncombe, Henderson and Polk counties, with door-to-door campaigns against the project.
By the end of the year, Duke had scrapped the plans for the transmission line and scaled back their overall project.
This area is contentious even for people who are environmentally conscious.
Some environmental groups are in the camp that renewable energy is a valuable investment and cite studies showing that North Carolina has rich potential for wind energy.
But one of the major concerns, obviously, is how the view would be impacted for the hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock to North Carolina beaches each summer.
The federal government mocked up what it’s expected to look like at ful build-out. Look closely at the horizon. You can look for the visualization studies of your favorite N.C. beach here.
Only one project has come to anything resembling fruition.
In March 2017, an auction was held for 122,000 acres in the Kitty Hawk area, about 27 nautical miles offshore. Avangrid Renewables LLC won the rights for about $9 million.
Implementation has not yet begun. Future auctions could be held closer to the South Carolina border.
Wind energy in the mountains
This debate has fallen along the same lines as offshore wind — job creation and renewable energy against the beauty of the natural terrain.
Appalachian State University estimated that opening up wind power could create some 22,000 jobs in western North Carolina.
A bill that would ban wind turbines on ridges above 3,000 feet was passed overwhelmingly by the N.C. Senate in 2009, but never moved forward in the House.
Still, no commercial wind farms have tried to set up shop in the mountains of North Carolina. There are only a handful set up by App State at high schools.