WesternGeco withdraws seismic testing application, but NC coast still vulnerable to offshore drilling

The area off the North Carolina coast that would be open to offshore seismic testing and oil and gas drilling.

WesternGeco has withdrawn its application to conduct underwater seismic testing for the oil and gas industries off the coast of North Carolina. But without a federal moratorium on the testing and drilling, these waters and the coast remain at risk.

The company notified the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management of its withdrawal on Sept. 4. BOEM had not yet ruled on the application.

WesternGeco had planned to shoot air guns  every 10 seconds, 208 days a year, at 225 to 260 decibels — louder than a rocket launch — from 19 miles offshore from the coast of Maryland, past North Carolina and further down the East Coast to 50 miles offshore of St. Augustine, Fla.

Even though the company would be using air guns outside of North Carolina’s jurisdictional boundary, the sound and shock waves travel for miles. Fish and other aquatic life often swim farther at sea and then return to the North Carolina coast, its bays and estuaries. Scientists have concluded that the seismic testing could harm the sea life that makes North Carolina its home base.

It’s unclear with prompted the withdrawal. The Trump administration had lifted a long-term moratorium on drilling and testing along the Southeast Coast. But earlier this week, the administration reversed itself, and again banned offshore drilling along the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

However, in what appeared to be a snub to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, Trump excluded North Carolina from the moratorium, allowing testing and drilling to occur.

Although WesternGeco is no longer interested in North Carolina waters, other companies have also applied. Without a federal moratorium, the coast is still vulnerable. Senior Attorney Catherine Wannamaker with the Southern Environmental Law Center issued a statement:

“The entire East Coast is unified in opposition to seismic blasting and oil drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, and this appears to be another recognition of that reality. But, like the President’s announcement this week, this isn’t a cause for celebration. Just as the other Atlantic states are still at risk for drilling, there are still other companies pursuing seismic blasting. We still have work to do.”

The Cooper administration, including the NC Department of Environmental Quality, has fought offshore drilling since 2017. Nearly every local government along the North Carolina coast also has opposed it, over concerns about potential spills and their effect on marine life, fisheries, water quality and tourism.

This part of the Atlantic Ocean is beyond states’ jurisdictional boundary of three miles, but energy exploration companies still must seek state certification to determine if the proposals comply with their respective coastal management laws. If the state objects, as has North Carolina, the federal government can’t issue a permit. However, the US Department of Commerce ultimately rules on appeals and disputes.

In June, the federal government overruled North Carolina’s objection to seismic testing off the coast, saying the activity proposed by the company WesternGeco is in the national interest. The decision allowed the BOEM to issue permits for seismic testing on the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf, roughly from Maryland to Florida. Four more companies have requested permits.

In response, last month NC Attorney General Josh Stein filed suit last month against the Trump administration to block the action.

Michael Jasny, director of the marine mammal protection project at the Natural Resources Defense Council called on the remaining companies to follow WesternGeco’s lead and withdraw their applications.

“This withdrawal is a sign of how strong the bipartisan opposition is—by coastal communities and officials at every level—to the harm that seismic explosions along the Atlantic coast would cause to marine life, to our oceans, and to our climate.”

Gov. Cooper: Gyms, bowling alleys, museums can open with limits

Gov. Roy Cooper: “Stability is not victory.”

The Labor Day weekend will begin with an easing of COVID-19 restrictions at public places, according to Phase 2.5 of the Cooper administration’s reopening plan, announced today.

Beginning Friday, Sept. 4, at 5 p.m., gyms, bowling alleys and other indoor exercise facilities can open at 30% capacity. Museums and aquariums are allowed to open at 50%. Playgrounds will also open, although children age 5 and older must wear masks in public. Capacity limits at restaurants remain the same.

The limits on mass gatherings will increase to 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors.

While state health officials recommend that public schools refrain from holding contact sporting events, like soccer and football, non-contact sports, such as tennis, can continue with no more than 50 spectators. Those attendees must also wear masks and socially distance.

Nursing homes will also allow outdoor visitation for the first time in nearly six months.

Bars, nightclubs, movie theaters, indoor entertainment centers and amusement parks will remain closed. The current restaurants must stop selling alcohol is in effect until Oct. 2.

Gov. Roy Cooper said that while the number of new COVID-19 cases is still higher than optimal, Phase 2.5 is appropriate because “key indicators remain stable.”

“But stability isn’t victory,” Cooper said.

North Carolina has reported a total of 169,425 lab-confirmed cases; 2,741 people have died.

On Sept. 1, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported 2,111 new cases, a level that Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen called “too high.”

DHHS said 953 people are hospitalized. The hospitalization rate has declined overall since late July, although the numbers are still elevated.

Similarly, the percentage of emergency room visits for COVID-like illness has declined since peaking in July, but it’s still well above the baseline.

There is sufficient hospital capacity, Cohen said.

North Carolina has been in Phase 2 for six weeks. “Our pause in Phase 2 was necessary as students returned to school and colleges,” Gov. Cooper said.

Shortly after the case counts began to stabilize, large colleges campuses opened, especially those in the UNC System, where there were outbreaks among college students. In mid-August, Cohen said, the number of positive cases increased among people ages 18 to 24.

Many campuses sent students back home for distance learning. Those who tested positive or were ill were encouraged to stay on campus to prevent community spread, Cohen said. “We’re watching the trend closely.”

The economy is one driver behind the administration’s move to Phase 2.5. “We want to do things to spur the economy and to encourage people to exercise,” Cooper said. “We know people are hurting. The more we do to slow down the virus, the faster we can let everything open.”

The state unemployment rate in July was 8.9%, up from the previous month’s figure of 7.7%.  Both numbers are below the peak in May, when the rate was 12.7%. However, there could be undercounting because some people may have given up on looking for work; the statistics also don’t include people who are underemployed.

NC extends alcohol curfew through September to slow spread of COVID

Governor Roy Cooper signed a new Executive Order Monday extending the limited hours on the sale of alcoholic drinks in North Carolina.

The measure will require restaurants to stop the sale of alcoholic drinks at 11:00pm through October 2nd.

Governor Cooper first introduced the statewide alcohol curfew in late July saying that the state wanted to prevent restaurants from turning into bars after hours.

With college towns like Chapel Hill and Raleigh seeing a return of students in August, the order appears to be aimed at their carefree, late-night activities.

Nineteen perfect of North Carolina’s COVID-19 cases have been with young adults between 18-14.

“North Carolina has made good progress stabilizing our COVID-19 numbers, and this order will help us continue it,” said Governor Cooper. “Now is the time to continue staying cautious and vigilant as we work to beat this pandemic.”

Local governments that have implemented orders that end alcohol sales before 11 pm would still remain in effect.

This afternoon at 3:00pm, Gov. Cooper is expected to outline the next phase of easing some restrictions for North Carolina during the pandemic.

Read Executive Order 162 here.

As Senate leaves on recess, Cooper labels failure of Trump, Congress to reach agreement on unemployment ‘unconscionable’

“We need to get unemployment compensation to the people who need it, people who are hanging by a thread, who need to put food on the table and need to pay the rent.”

Governor Roy Cooper sounded frustrated Thursday that Congress and President Trump remained in a stalemate over how to roll out the next coronavirus relief package and an extension of enhanced unemployment benefits.

Cooper explained Trump’s executive order provides for a $300 weekly boost in federal unemployment insurance, but it also requires states provide a $100 weekly match, which would come from the North Carolina Unemployment Trust Fund.

Setting all this up could take weeks, something jobless individuals can ill afford.

“One thing I have said to our members of Congress and U.S. Senators – don’t create more programs here. Already this is difficult enough for states to administer because of the overwhelming number of people who lost their jobs. Fund the programs that we have already set up,” said Gov. Cooper during his weekly update on COVID-19.

A closer look at NC unemployment claims filed over the past week. (Source: NCDES)

Since mid-March more than 1.2 million North Carolinians have applied for state unemployment insurance benefits. Twenty-five percent of those claimants (305, 145) were deemed not eligible for any benefits.

(Reasons for a claim being rejected can include an insufficient wage history or failure to file a weekly certification.)

Cooper also stressed the need for the legislature to revisit state jobless benefits.

“Most people are running out of their payments after 12 weeks. The cap of $350 per week in North Carolina needs to be raised. The state legislature needs to take action.”

As for Congress, members have adjourned for the remainder of August and are unlikely to return to the debate over enhanced unemployment benefits until after Labor Day.

On Thursday the U.S. Labor Department announced 963,000 people filed for unemployment last week, a slight decrease from the previous week.

As COVID numbers show signs of stabilizing, North Carolina rolls out statewide curfew on alcohol sales

Health and Human Service Secretary Mandy Cohen offered a glimmer of good news on Tuesday:

Key metrics used to measure North Carolina’s trajectory of COVID-19 cases are showing signs of leveling.

“These early signs are a testament to hard work folks have been doing across the state. They show what is possible when we all work together,” said Cohen.

With the state performing an average of 29,000 tests a day, roughly eight percent of the cases have been positive over the last 14 days. Today there were 1,749 new cases of the virus.

The number of hospitalizations is up, but the state still has capacity.

And as for those masks that we’re growing accustomed to wearing?

Dr. Cohen believes they are making a difference.

“We see a direct correlation to the start of the statewide mask requirement at the end of June. Two to three weeks after implementing this requirement, we started to see the beginning of these more stable trends.”

To that end, Governor Roy Cooper issued a new executive order Tuesday to limit the sale of alcohol at restaurants after 11:00pm.

The statewide order that goes into effect on Friday will curtail the sale of alcoholic drinks in restaurants, breweries, wineries, and distilleries. For now, bars remained closed under a previous executive order.

The order will not apply to grocery stores or convenience stores where alcohol is sold for off-premises consumption.

“We want to prevent restaurants from turning into bars after hours. We are hopeful this new rule can drive down cases, particularly among young people,” explained Cooper.

The governor said he felt the new order was especially important with college students returning to North Carolina from across the country over the next two weeks.

Click here to read Executive Order 153 restricting the late night service of alcoholic beverages.

Secretary Cohen believes as cases tick upward in other states, the key to keeping cases from exploding here is to continue the three Ws: Wearing a face mask, waiting six-feet apart when in public, and washing your hands frequently.

“Seeing glimmers of potential progress, does not mean we can let up. It means it is time to double down. Adding 2,000 new cases per day is still a lot of new cases.”