North Carolina environmental agency hosts closed-door meeting on off-shore oil drilling plan



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RALEIGH, North Carolina — Officials from North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia met privately Thursday with federal regulators and groups funded by oil and gas companies to discuss plans for drilling off the Atlantic coast.

A coalition of environmental groups sought to be allowed inside the Mid-Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Five-Year Program meeting, which was held at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.

Reporters were allowed to attend the end of the session only to hear closing remarks by North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, but only after a police officer posted at the door checked their credentials. By then, many of the 60 people on the list of invited attendees had left, leaving behind empty chairs.

McCrory, a Republican, has been outspoken in his support for launching oil and gas exploration off of the East Coast as soon as possible. On Thursday, he said the drilling would create jobs and bring needed revenue to the state.

"Exploring the potential oil and gas reserves located in the Outer Continental Shelf will solidify North Carolina's position as an energy leader and drive us to energy independence," said McCrory, who became governor after retiring from Charlotte-based Duke Energy after 29 years. "Increasing availability of natural gas will strengthen our economy and contribute to economic prosperity for decades to come."

Donald van der Vaart, the energy policy adviser for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said in a letter sent to environmental groups last week that the meeting was kept invitation-only due to concerns raised by federal officials.

Among those in attendance were top officials from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which regulates drilling operations and handles the sale and lease of off-shore drilling rights in federal waters.

"The inclusion of special interest groups and industry would allow for the potential of the appearance of influence on the permit application reviews currently underway by the Obama Administration," wrote van der Vaart, who previously worked for the oil company Shell and an electric utility that is now a subsidiary of Duke Energy.

"Therefore the joint decision was made to limit the invitation list to federal and state agencies and elected officials to avoid any potential for real or perceived conflicts of interest."

There is currently a federal moratorium on off-shore drilling along the Mid-Atlantic coast, but planning is underway for oil and gas extraction to begin in 2017.

John Filostrat, spokesman for the federal Ocean Energy Management bureau, denied his agency asked that the meeting be closed to the public.

Asked about Filostrat's remarks, state Environment Secretary John E. Skvarla repeated the assertion that it was a "collective decision" made with federal officials, though he refused to discuss specifically with whom those discussions had occurred.

"This is going to be a long process," Skvarla said. "There's going to be plenty of time for stakeholder involvement, and the process will be done right."

A copy of the agenda for Thursday's meeting and a list of attendees obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request shows at least three scheduled speakers from private groups with strong ties to energy companies.

Among those set to speak were Michael Zehr, an adviser at the Consumer Energy Alliance. According to its website, the alliance's members include numerous oil and gas companies engaged in off-shore drilling, among them ExxonMobil, BP, ConocoPhillips and Shell.

Also listed among those speaking was Charlie Williams, the executive director of the Center for Offshore Safety. That group's listed members include Halliburton, Chevron, Hess, Marathon, Anadarko and Transocean.

Also on the agenda were remarks from Dan Simmons, the vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research. The nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., does not disclose its donors, according to its spokesman Chris Warren.

Incorporation filings show the institute grew out of a Texas-based advocacy group co-founded by Charles Koch, the chief executive officer of Koch Industries. The institute's president, Thomas J. Pyle, previously worked as a lobbyist for Koch Industries, whose subsidiaries include extensive oil and gas operations.

Simmons previously worked at the American Legislative Exchange Council, an industry-funded group that has worked to ease environmental regulations for the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

Also in attendance, according to the provided list, were more than a dozen federal officials that included Acting Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Walter Cruickshank, numerous congressional aides, a delegation of environmental regulators from the state of South Carolina and a manager from the Virginia Department of Mines Minerals and Energy.

Despite the oil and gas ties of some of the invited speakers, the event's organizers insisted there was no undue influence being exerted.

"No attendee is directly employed by industry," said Crystal Feldman, the energy communications director at North Carolina's environmental enforcement agency.

Environmental advocates whose requests to attend the meeting were rebuffed saw it differently.

"We can't recall any other administration convening a meeting of public officials to talk about a public process for developing a public resource, held in a public location, that is closed to the public," said Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, spokesman for the North Carolina Sierra Club. "It's hard to understand why the McCrory administration is being so secretive and shutting the public out of the conversation about the future of our coast."


Follow Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker at Twitter.com/mbieseck

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