Case #324
Title: Local Activists Block Big Oil's Drilling Plans

The battle against offshore drilling in North Carolina began in 1988 when a consortium of oil companies led by Mobil applied for permits to sink an exploratory well about 40 miles off Cape Hatteras, site of a national seashore. In response, a dozen local activists formed LegaSea, and incorporated as a nonprofit organization.

LegaSea originally intended to portray itself as a watchdog organization and avoided being linked with activist groups like Greenpeace and NRDC. (Greenpeace and NRDC, however, did provide LegaSea with vital information and tactical advice.) The group told local newspapers that LegaSea wasn't necessarily opposed to drilling, but members wanted to make sure it could be done safely. Following the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, LegaSea changed tactics and soon learned how to wage grassroots political war. The group sold bumper stickers and T-shirts, collected thousands of signatures on petitions, and launched letter-writing campaigns to government officials. It convinced the local chamber of commerce, board of Realtors, and town and county governments to pass resolutions against drilling. Eight citizens made lobbying trips to Capitol Hill in Washington to win political allies. One activist set up a special telephone line so her customers and tourists could call their congressmen and once she brought a model oil derrick to a public hearing to show how much pollution it could cause.

A federal 10-year moratorium issued in 1990 brought oil company lawsuits and a shifting around of drilling permits between Mobil and Chevron oil companies. This kept LegaSea involved in battling this extension of industrialization into the virgin waters of North Carolina's Outer Banks area. Membership grew to over 300. The group organized letter writing campaigns asking people to write their elected officials, wrote letters to newspapers, and talked with members of local churches about the predictable negative social consequences of having their coastal towns become "oil rig towns."

In June 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Interior Department should refund Mobil Oil and its partners $158 million for its lease blocks off Hatteras Island. LegaSea's members hardly had time to celebrate before officials said that Chevron had transferred its lease blocks to Conoco. However, in late 2000, Conoco decided to abandon the lease blocks. LegaSea won, at least temporarily, the latest round against off shore oil drilling.

At present, North Carolina is included in a moratorium against new offshore drilling until 2012. Last spring, however, a committee that advises the Interior Department on oil and gas drilling recommended that federal officials explore lifting the moratorium from five areas, including the waters off the Outer Banks. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham later promised in a Senate hearing that the ban will be left in place, at least here.

Comments: It is rare for a group of oil companies to be fought to a standstill. Part of LegaSea's success must be attributed to luck, especially in the timing of the Exxon Valdez accident and their local efforts. LegaSea believes, however, that they (and democracy) won this last time around because they took pains to involve the whole Outer Banks community. Their alliance reached across political, religious, social, and cultural lines and they have not let down their guard. Group members learned other important lessons: how to pace themselves, persistence, determination, and a working style of "just-the-facts," reasonable demeanor and unfailing courtesy which helped portray the group as middle Americans fighting a great injustice. These are good organizing principles for any group. Undesirable consequences include the fact that the group needs to continue its watchfulness indefinitely.

When: 1988-2001
Location: North Carolina, US
Action: Environment, Resources
Setting: Developed World
Extent of Action: Local
Categories: Environment, Resources
Outcome successful for now
Source: Mother Jones, September/October 2001, page 67
Prepared By: sl, 11/01
Rating: 1