011118 Offshore drilling: Opponents focus their attention on governor
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Offshore drilling: Opponents focus their attention on governor

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Gov. Henry McMaster vowed Wednesday to take “appropriate steps” to protect South Carolina’s coast from oil and gas drilling. His remarks to reporters in the statehouse followed the removal of Florida from a new leasing proposal at the request of Gov. Rick Scott.

Leasing could begin as soon as 2020 for oil and gas exploration and drilling of tracts off the South Carolina coast under a proposal announced last week by the U.S. Department of the Interior. A citizens group that has spent the last three years fighting offshore drilling believes the shortened time frame will help it generate opposition to the plan.

“This could seriously happen,” said Peg Howell, a leader of Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic. “That lease sale is literally around the corner.”

But drilling opponents were buoyed this week by the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s announcement that he will remove Florida from the leasing proposal at the request of Scott. “I support the governor’s position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver,” Zinke said in a statement that also emphasized the weight the administration gives to “state and local voice” in the process.

That’s good news, said leaders of SODA, which began in response to a 2015 proposal to open portions of the Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas. From a meeting of three people at the Waccamaw Library, it emerged as the public face of opposition to offshore drilling, citing the threats to the environment and the area’s tourist economy from oil and gas operations. The area off the South Carolina coast remained closed to drilling under the plan approved by the Obama Administration in 2016. Last April, President Donald Trump ordered the process reopened.

In addition to an earlier start to the leases, the current proposal also eliminates a 50-mile buffer that was proposed in 2015. Drilling would be allowed up to the state’s 3-mile limit under two current leasing options. A third would provide a 25-mile buffer, “to accommodate concerns such as military use, fish and marine mammal migration and other nearshore uses,” according to the draft from the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

“Here is a threat that is even more significant,” said Howell.

The draft leasing plan is up for public comment. A “request for information” on the leasing program last year drew about 815,000 comments, including those in opposition from Georgetown County Council, state Rep. Lee Hewitt and U.S. Rep. Tom Rice.

McMaster was not among those who filed comments, although he has said he opposes offshore drilling. “We’re going to try to help him make that official comment to BOEM,” said Jim Watkins, who chairs the SODA leadership committee. “This is not partisan. You’ve got big government telling local folks what’s best for them.”

Hewitt, who served on an ad hoc committee that held hearings last year on offshore drilling, agreed the governor’s role is critical. “If he’s opposed, he needs to step up,” Hewitt said Wednesday morning.

Speaking a short time afterward, McMaster said he opposes drilling and seismic testing. “Our tourism industry and glorious natural resources, particularly in the Lowcountry, are beyond compare in the United States,” said the governor, whose family has a home on Pawleys Creek. “They are the source for enormous economic growth and prosperity, and we cannot take a chance with those resources, those industries and their economy.”

He said the threat of offshore drilling is “a matter of serious importance to us in South Carolina.”

He didn’t specify what steps he would take. “There will be more news later,” McMaster said.

Scott’s role is significant because, like McMaster, he was a supporter of Trump in the GOP primaries. Environmental groups in Florida see the drilling decision as an effort by the Trump Administration to boost Scott’s bid for the U.S. Senate. That could encourage McMaster to follow suit, according to drilling opponents in South Carolina.

Meanwhile, Hewitt is doubtful that a resolution from Rep. Russell Ott asking the legislature to oppose drilling will come up for debate. Although it was intended to follow the work of the ad hoc committee formed by the House agriculture committee, the resolution was referred to the committee on invitations.

“We don’t know if it will even get a hearing,” Hewitt said. The ad hoc committee is also due to issue a report, but Hewitt doesn’t know when that will occur. The hearings underscored the split between the coast and the Upstate on the drilling issue.

The draft leasing plan ranks the South Atlantic “program area” off South Carolina, Georgia and eastern Florida low in resources and, consequently, in industry interest. Chevron ranked it sixth out of seven regions. Seven other firms and a collection of industry groups didn’t specify their order of interest.

Estimates of “technically recoverable” oil (410 million barrels) and gas (1.8 trillion cubic feet) in the South Atlantic area are the lowest of all but one of the 11 regions along the continental United States. Only the Straits of Florida has less.

SODA will hold a public meeting Jan. 29 at the Waccamaw Library to explain the draft leasing plan and the public comment process. It begins at 6:30 p.m.

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