Too Much at Stake

How offshore drilling threatens North Carolina's tourist economy
Released by: Environment North Carolina Research & Policy Center

In the long debate over management of the outer continental shelf (OCS), the oil industry and some policy makers have claimed that our tax base and coastal jobs rely on expanding oil and gas drilling to new places. However, one set of issues –-critical to healthy oceans-- that has largely been ignored in this debate is the potential economic losses that new offshore drilling creates for our existing coastal economies and the potential for damage to treasured coasts and marine resources. 

This report makes it clear in dollars and cents that our clean beaches, coasts and oceans are worth too much to risk another drilling disaster like BP’s oil spill in the Gulf.  In fact, the annual value of tourism and fishing in most coastal regions is many times higher than the annual value of any oil or gas that might be found there.  Offshore drilling is incompatible with more sustainable activities like tourism and fishing because drilling inevitably results in large oil spills, chronic pollution, and industrializing the coast for oil facilities. We only have to look at the immense damage that the BP Deepwater Horizon spill did to the Gulf of Mexico’s fishing, tourism and wildlife to recognize what impact drilling would have on other coasts.

In addition to the large economic benefits that flow from use and enjoyment of the ocean, the report highlights the special marine ecosystems, treasured beaches, and extraordinary marine life in our waters.  Our coasts are lined with beaches visited by tens of millions annually, national wildlife refuges, parks, and sensitive marshes and bays.  Offshore in the ocean, some underwater environments rival rain forests in biological diversity and exceed the productivity of grasslands. Our coastal oceans have sea grass beds, kelp forests, submarine canyons, rich fishing grounds, shallow corals, and deepwater corals, all of which can be damaged by oil spills.  

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have proposed expanding offshore drilling outside the Central and Western Gulf of Mexico. But for economic and environmental reasons, we believe that offshore drilling should not be expanded beyond the Central and Western Gulf to areas like the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific coast, or Alaskan waters.  BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf provides us with a very tangible example of the huge economic and environmental damage that a large spill can cause.

The report concludes that our oceans and coasts are worth more wild than as an oil field.

  • According to U.S. government data, the annual value of tourism in coastal counties of the U.S. exceeds $190 billion, not including any indirect economic multiplier effects.  The annual value of commercial and recreational fishing in the ocean exceeds $34 billion.  Altogether, coastal businesses dependent on clean oceans and beaches generated $225 billion in 2008. (See Table 1 & Appendix 1) 
  • Nationwide, more than 4.5 million people are employed in coastal counties in the tourism industry and in recreational and commercial fishing and processing. (See Appendix 2)
  • In coastal counties of the Gulf of Mexico, the heart of the offshore drilling industry, jobs dependent on tourism and fishing (777,000) exceed all natural resource extraction and mining (which includes oil and gas drilling) employment (154,000) by five times.
  • The annual value of businesses dependent on clean oceans and beaches like tourism and fishing exceeds the annual value of estimated oil and natural gas resources in all regions with one exception. (See Table 1)
  • In the North Atlantic and Mid-Atlantic states, the value of sustainable activities is approximately 12 times and 4 times larger, respectively, than the value of any oil and gas production.
  • In the South Atlantic, coastal tourism and fishing have a yearly economic yield 20 times larger than the yield from potential offshore drilling. 
  • In the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, the most hotly contested area for new drilling, sustainable businesses like tourism and fishing generate almost three times the value that new oil and gas drilling would. 
  • The ability of the oceans and certain coastal ecosystems to capture and hold atmospheric carbon and store it for very long periods of time as long as they are not degraded,  makes clear the global importance of healthy oceans and coasts. Onshore oil facilities and offshore spills threaten the health of those ecosystems. Our estimates of the value of coastal dependent businesses do not include the value of the environmental services like carbon removal that oceans and coasts provide.  If added in, the ratio of renewable activities compared to oil and gas value would be even more lopsided.