The governors coalition’s work inched forward through much of its first year-and-a-half, at least in part because there wasn’t that much it could do. The Interior Department had excluded new areas from the current drilling plan, covering 2012-2017, and it hadn’t yet begun substantive work on the next one. The coalition wrote letters to Congress and the Obama administration (two of which appear to have been edited by Shell and Exxon Mobil), urging open dialogue and pressing on other issues, such as revenue sharing. It held periodic meetings. On December 7, 2012, three Alaska officials — Kip Knudson and Nathan Butzlaff, who led Parnell’s work on the coalition, and state Commerce Commissioner Susan Bell — attended CEA’s holiday party at the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, according to emails.
In 2013, the newly-elected McCrory, formerly a Duke Energy executive, joined the coalition, adding an important player in the group’s push for drilling off the South Atlantic coast. The group had a new chairman in Parnell, who before entering office had been ConocoPhillips’ chief lobbyist in Alaska and had worked on energy for Patton Boggs, a D.C. lobbying firm that represented Exxon Mobil.
As part of the coalition’s effort to establish itself, the governors and CEA formalized their relationship with a memorandum of understanding designating CEA as volunteer staff with specific duties to manage the organization. It held a “strategy session” with the American Petroleum Institute.
In October, the coalition convened at the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, alongside the annual gathering of the Southern States Energy Board for what would be a formative meeting. The following year would present the first opportunity for the group to weigh in on the next five-year drilling plan, and the governors and CEA wanted to make sure they were prepared to make their case.
Govs. Parnell, McCrory and Bryant, along with staff of the other governors, met for more than an hour in one of the resort’s ballrooms with executives from Exxon Mobil, Shell, Spectrum Geo — a seismic testing company — and other energy groups, including the Southeastern Coastal Wind Coalition, to hear their concerns, according to a meeting agenda.
Briefing documents prepared by CEA include talking points on the economic benefits of drilling, saying, “the key is to echo these messages to Congress and the Obama Administration, encouraging them to pursue a sensible path that allows for Atlantic leasing.” The document adds that “coastal governors, legislators, and other stakeholders should play a lead role in delivering the messages below to the Administration and to Congress.”
According to notes from the meeting prepared by CEA’s Joubert, Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, an offshore industry group, advised the governors that they could suggest to the Interior Department which areas should be leased, and he “urged the governors to keep their areas of potential interest as broad as possible.” He also warned of “increasing activism by NGOs against seismic activity and cautioned the governors about some of these groups’ false rhetoric.”
The day after the meeting, Tony Almeida, a senior adviser to McCrory, sent an email to Holt saying the governor had agreed to serve as vice-chairman of the coalition. “Great news, Tony!” Holt replied, adding, “Great work yesterday. Pat was outstanding! Lots of key action items. We can’t thank you enough for all your support and leadership on OCSGC. 2014 is going to be… interesting. :)”
An “interesting” year
This year, the debate over drilling in the Atlantic picked up significantly just as the coalition finally gained the sort of direct access to the Obama administration it had been seeking. And, the emails show, CEA played a critical role in helping the governors respond.
Two weeks before the governors’ meeting with Jewell that cold February morning in Washington, officials from Alaska and North Carolina had a series of email exchanges and phone calls with CEA’s Joubert to prepare for the meeting. Joubert advised Donald van der Vaart — North Carolina’s deputy environment secretary, who had been tasked with preparing McCrory — on specific policies, such as what to request regarding seismic testing. Van der Vaart asked Joubert to send talking points, noting that a previous briefing book she had sent was “an amazing resource.”
In that meeting at the Willard, Jewell reportedly told the governors that her job isn’t “to get in the way of development,” but rather “to make sure it’s done right.” She and her staff also noted that environmental organizations had increased scrutiny of seismic testing, so her department would make sure appropriate mitigation measures were in place to protect marine animals.
Just days after the meeting, the Interior Department released a long-awaited environmental assessment that would allow seismic testing, and the governors coalition decided to defer to industry for their response. “Natalie — Would you be able to check with NOIA and/or API to see where they are on their respective reviews/analyses?” wrote Butzlaff, the Parnell staffer, in March, referring to the National Ocean Industries Association and the American Petroleum Institute, and calling Joubert by her first name. Joubert responded that the industry hadn’t yet reached consensus, but that it “has concerns more broadly that setting a precedent for stringent mitigation measures in the Atlantic could affect future measures in the Gulf and the Arctic.”
This past summer, the Interior Department said it would begin reviewing applications for that testing, with those more stringent measures in place. At the same time, it began accepting comments from industry, advocacy groups and other stakeholders on which areas it should open to drilling beginning in 2017.
Representatives of the governors coalition have maintained that it is an open and transparent group that strives to include different viewpoints. But the Center was only able to learn the details of the organization by submitting records requests — which North Carolina still has not provided — and there’s no evidence that opponents of drilling have been invited to any meetings.
Indeed, critics point to that North Carolina meeting earlier this month as the perfect illustration of what’s wrong with the way the governors coalition operates. On November 6, North Carolina hosted a meeting on the five-year planning process that focused on the Atlantic. Officials from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources told journalists and environmental groups that the event was invitation only and that “neither special interest groups nor industry representatives” would be present.
That was true in regard to environmental groups — but apparently not for others. During the event, reporters waited in the halls of Raleigh’s Nature Research Center as state and federal officials listened to panel discussions that featured, among others, a CEA staffer and someone from the Center for Offshore Safety, an industry group.
McCrory did allow reporters in, but not until after the meeting was finished, and industry groups had given their presentations. McCrory’s position hasn’t wavered, and he made that clear, telling reporters that “North Carolina ought to participate in our country’s energy independence.”