072717 Environment: County Council opposes offshore drilling
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Jim Watkins and Peg Howell, leaders of SODA, at a beachfront rally this spring.

Environment: County Council opposes offshore drilling

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Georgetown County Council this week joined the chorus of coastal communities opposed to offshore oil and gas drilling and the seismic tests proposed to determine the extent of those resources. “Once they got good information, they saw the right side to be on,” Council Member John Thomas said. He introduced a resolution opposing the tests and the drilling. It passed unanimously.

Pawleys Island Town Council and Georgetown City Council passed similar resolutions in 2015. So did every other municipality on the South Carolina coast. The federal government during the last year of the Obama administration decided not to open areas off South Carolina for drilling and later denied permits for testing. The Trump administration revived the process for drilling leases and seismic tests this year.

The renewed push for drilling prompted the citizens group Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic (SODA) to seek further support from local government. County Council members were reluctant to pass a resolution in 2015 because U.S. 7th District Rep. Tom Rice supported drilling. He is now opposed.

“We started this conversation two years ago, then we really didn’t need to push on it,” said Peg Howell, a leader of SODA who is also married to Thomas. A former “company man” on an oil rig, Howell has emerged as the spokeswoman for the group. “This administration is trying to move these permits much more quickly. We no longer have the luxury of time,” she said.

Georgetown County’s resolution will be included in comments to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which is developing a new leasing program.

The council’s resolution cites the risk to the county’s environment, quality of life and tourism industry from oil and gas production. It “desires to protect our unique environment by managing our open spaces, rivers, beaches, ecological areas and natural resources in a manner consistent with our community’s values and priorities,” the resolution states.

The county’s position has changed since 2014 when its Economic Development Alliance hosted a business forum with two representatives from the oil industry in Louisiana. The alliance chairman and its then-director also toured the oil hub at Port Fourchon. At the time, the county was preparing a capital projects sales tax referendum to help fund dredging of the Georgetown harbor and shipping channel. The dredging project is now unlikely as the cost escalated and the cargo volume continued to decline.

The council resolution is something of a canary in the mineshaft, showing the air is healthy for opponents, Howell said. SODA hopes to get a similar resolution from Horry County Council next month and its members are in talks with the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. “They had come out in support,” she said.

The drilling opponents are also taking their campaign beyond the coast. Howell was one of five people to testify this month on Capitol Hill before a subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee. Two of the other panelists, Lori LeBlanc, an oil industry consultant from Louisiana, and Michael Whatley of the Consumer Energy Alliance, which supports drilling, told Howell they would be visiting the state this summer. “We’ve got to continue to educate and inform people,” she said.

SODA is contacting people who own property on the coast but live west of Interstate 95. It also plans to contact local government in the Upstate. The city of Columbia passed a resolution opposing drilling in 2015. No one has approached the city of Greenville, Howell said, but she spoke to students at Furman University about the issue about 18 months ago. “They had no idea,” she said.

Thomas said his colleagues on Georgetown County Council were open to the idea of a resolution after Rice came out in opposition to renewing the leasing program. “They were not reluctant to support it after they got the information,” he said.

“We’re not the lone voice in the wilderness anymore,” Howell said.

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