April 21, 2017
Mount Pleasant, South Carolina – On this dock, where captains and first mates are freshening their boats with coats of white paint and rigging up new shrimp trawling gear to take to springtime Atlantic waters, the debate over drilling for oil in East Coast waters divides colleagues and, occasionally, families.
Much of Capt. Wayne Magwood’s pro-offshore drilling stance comes down to a pocketbook issue. Burning through 1,000 gallons of diesel a week in his boat Winds of Fortune is manageable with low diesel costs, but past high fuel prices have made the economics of shrimping nearly impossible.
“I’m tired of paying $4 a gallon. I’d like to pay $2 a gallon,” the 64-year-old Magwood said. “We don’t want to be dependent on foreign oil. We can’t get it when we need it. I think it’s good for the local economy. Environmentalists are doing a good job of regulating it and they’ve done a good job in the Gulf.”
The good job he referred to is the cleanup following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, one that sent nearly 5 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the same spill activists against offshore drilling cite as one of many reasons to keep oil and gas interests out of the Atlantic.
The Gulf spill is illustrative of the entire debate over Atlantic energy exploration. Advocates say the economic benefits will be significant, both regionally in the jobs created and nationally in the increased oil and natural gas reserves that could drive down energy prices. Opponents say economic projections are unreliable and the potential positive impact is not worth the risk of a possible oil spill in the pristine Atlantic waters.
The East Coast holds no offshore drilling rigs, and as former President Barack Obama was preparing to leave office, he removed the Atlantic from the next five-year offshore energy plan, and banned drilling across wide swaths of the Atlantic from the Canadian border to Virginia. He also rejected six permit applications to conduct seismic testing off the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, effectively ending attempts to search for oil and gas in those areas.
But as President Donald Trump, friendly to the fossil fuel industry, assumed office, offshore drilling opponents began steeling themselves for a challenge. That challenge began to materialize earlier this month amid published reports that Trump was preparing an executive order that would undo the Obama administration’s actions restrict offshore exploration and drilling. As a candidate, Trump promised to expand exploration and drilling opportunities off the Atlantic coast.
The speculation has come as a disappointment to Cindy Tarvin, who along with her husband Taylor Tarvin, runs two shrimping boats from a dock shared with Magwood’s Winds of Fortune.
“The lessons from the Gulf are still fresh in a lot of people’s minds and I don’t think it’s going to be a great source of oil for this country or anywhere,” she said, drawing on concerns about the infrastructure and concerns that a spill would devastate the Carolina coasts. “To put oil rigs in fishing grounds is, in my opinion, a terrible idea.”
The Tarvins also sell wholesale and retail shrimp from their Mount Pleasant location, one that lies just north of Charleston, connected to the city by one of the region’s most distinctive features: the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, an expanse that carries motorists beneath soaring towers and elegant cables supporting eight lanes.
Many locals cross the bridge to head to work in Charleston and parts south; others driving north into Mount Pleasant are bound for Sullivan Island’s placid sands or docks like those on Shem Creek, where the Tarvins also sell shrimp to walk-up customers, along with supplying the crustaceans wholesale to area restaurants.
Here at the Shem Creek docks, along with experienced sea hands is a captain-in-training, 10-year-old Braxton Brown, who one day hopes to pilot his own boat, following in fishing waters trawled by both his dad and granddad.
He, too, has thoughts on offshore drilling.
“I don’t want it to happen because all the porpoises and dolphins will go deaf and won’t be able to find food or anything and they’ll die and they could get in the nets,” said the fourth-grader, who said he’s heard some talk around the docks and learned about seismic testing last year.
Critics of the tests, which use high-powered airguns aimed at the ocean floor to generate sound waves that help create a picture of the ocean’s subfloor, fear they can harm or kill marine life, including deafening mammals and disrupting fish habitats.
But Braxton’s granddad, Donnie Brown, who pilots the Carolina Breeze for the Tarvins, sees new opportunity for his skills should the oil or gas rigs come.
The elder Brown began learning his trade as his grandson did, as a boy, and has lived through enough decades on the ocean to learn the kind of lessons that can’t be taught in a classroom. At times, high fuel prices have whittled away at decent living. He lost one boat to a fire when a cord shorted out, and the one he bought to replace it was a lemon.
He likes the peace of the big, open water, and once captained a tugboat pulling barges to the Bahamas, until his boss lost that contract and put him on the narrow waterway. Hated that, he said.
On offshore drilling, he makes no mention of whales or dolphins, while his grandson says nothing of the family’s income.
“They’ll have crew boats running back and forth and they’ll need captains for that, carrying supplies,” the grandfather said. “I got a friend running crew boats in the Gulf. There’s good money in that.”
But to many on South Carolina’s coast, good money isn’t about oil. It’s about a way of life, attractive to locals and visitors alike.
South Carolina draws tourists from across the Southeast, with 60 percent of the nearly 30 million visitors to the state traveling to a coastal county, according to estimates by the state’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. By one estimate, accepted by some opponents of offshore exploration, Atlantic coast economies support 1.4 million jobs and contribute $95 billion to the annual gross domestic product. Offshore exploration and drilling can’t come close to that, they say.
The bulk of visitors South Carolina’s coast head to Horry County, home of Myrtle Beach, to Charleston County with its rich cultural and historical offerings or Beaufort County, known for Hilton Head Island, according to the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
After the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Folly Beach saw an uptick in visitors who abandoned Gulf Coast vacations in favor of South Carolina, said Mayor Tim Goodwin. Many still return to Folly, he said.
In 2015, as talk of offshore exploration and seismic testing in the Atlantic ramped up, Goodwin and the City Council passed a resolution opposing those practices, with municipalities along the Southeast coastline adopting similar measures. So far, 1,200 local governments have stated opposition to drilling off the Atlantic.
“It’s given us a lot of advertisement over the years and people still come back here after the Gulf was cleaned up. You look at timing, it’s everything,” Goodwin said. “They’re talking about exploring offshore and then they can’t show you it’s going to be of any great economic impact. Are you willing to take that chance with what is your state’s number one economic driver?” he said, noting that agricultural folks might also lay claim to the top spot.
“We don’t want our pristine beach to end up as an oil slick,” said the mayor, who likes to spend his free time searching for endangered turtle nests.
But it’s not just the image of a blackened beach brought by a major spill that worries anti-drilling advocates. They fear the smaller leaks that could send sticky blobs of oil, known as tar balls to the sand, each one nicking away at an economy with a pristine getaway and lifestyle at its center.
Advocates for drilling argue the coast stands to gain jobs, both directly in the petroleum industry and indirectly through supporting services. It’s a claim to the many who have protested offshore drilling.
But many, like Sandra Bundy are adamant that offshore drilling should not be allowed to impinge on the force now driving coastline’s economy: tourism. A native of Murrells Inlet and a real estate agent, Bundy in her 55 years has watched her hometown transform from a sleepy strip to a bustling destination.
Owner of real estate agency, B&P Inc., Bundy also is a member of Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic. Known as SODA, that loose coalition of activists and concerned citizens formed about three years ago as it seemed the area might be opened to the petroleum industry.
“If something were to happen to tourism, it’s going to affect our resort rental market. If somebody had a house on the ocean and we had a spill, they’d be losing money,” she said. “I believe we have such a strong real estate market here because it’s not industrialized. The industrialization has to be somewhere and where would that be?”
Bundy and other members of SODA insist any petroleum infrastructure, including buildings, pipelines and tractor-trailers, is not compatible with the area’s beaches, seafood restaurants and oceanfront homes, as well as refuges and preserves where salt marsh rivers flow placidly through cordgrass.
But the industry would focus on zoned industrialized areas, and wouldn’t barrel equipment though resort communities, said Andy Radford, senior policy adviser for the American Petroleum Institute.
Technologies exist that can forgo pipelines by placing oil in converted tankers and sending it directly to a refinery, he said. That part of the conversation would be far down the road, he added.
The last tests to probe for oil in the Atlantic used methods from 1970s and 1980s, he said, and the area should be tested with more up-to-date technology, particularly seismic testing.
“We don’t know what it’s going to be 10, 20 years down the road and that’s the time frame you’re looking at to develop frontier areas in the Atlantic,” Radford said. “If you have lease sales in the next five to 10 years, you’re looking at another five to 10 years before drilling occurs, discoveries are made, infrastructure is built. That oil is going to be produced well down the road. We’re looking at this as a long-term play.” Down the pipeline
When it comes to energy independence, advocates both inside and outside South Carolina, believe the soundest long-term strategy lies with renewable energies, such as solar and wind power.
About a decade ago, under former North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, Rob Young was appointed to a committee, along with other experts and elected officials, to examine the potential of offshore drilling along the coast.
The panel was disbanded before it produced a final report, but Young, director for the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, said he didn’t see much of an upside for the state.
“It was pretty clear there weren’t going to be a lot of economic benefits for North Carolina, particularly for drilling done in federal waters. Just because there are some oil wells nearby, that doesn’t necessarily lower your energy costs, which are set by a global market,” he said. “There might be some areas that would benefit from providing services to those oil wells, but that’s likely to be areas that already have harbor facilities.”
Pursuing green technologies, he said, “seems like the final ticket for energy independence and national security in the U.S.”
Last year, when Obama’s draft plan removed much of the Atlantic from consideration for offshore drilling, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy considered that a victory that reflected the will of the people, said Chris Carnevale, the Charleston-based coastal climate and energy manager for the organization.
Should Trump sign an executive order to rescind that decision, it’s likely a court battle will play out, Carnevale said, though it is within the president’s purview to set the U.S. Department of the Interior on a course of his choosing.
But should that course materialize, it will almost certainly be followed by an outcry.
“We will know more in the weeks to come, I’m sure,” Carnevale said. “The important point is even though there is someone new in the White House, that does not change the fact that offshore drilling is hugely unpopular with coastal residents. It doesn’t change the fact that over 100 local governments up and down the East Coast have formally opposed offshore drilling or that over 1,000 businesses have formally weighed in with comments and letters to oppose offshore drilling along the coast.”
Back on the docks, shrimpers are more concerned with launching into the season when waters reach 70 degrees, but Taylor Tarvin has been disappointed to watch as environmental protections are being chipped away under President Trump, and doesn’t want to see offshore drilling in the area.
“It’s something you don’t hear about much anymore, but the fishing is still not up to the levels prior to the oil spill down there,” he said of the Gulf Coast.
Tarvin, 63, and his wife, Cindy, both voted for Hillary Clinton, while Wayne Magwood was a Trump backer. But they don’t argue politics or their differing opinions on drilling.
Beachgoers sometimes see shrimping boats along the coast, he said, but what many don’t know is the ocean hides rocky bottoms and sometimes, sunken ships, areas where nets can’t be lowered without damage, Tarvin said.
“If you have rigs being built out there that encroach on the bottom we can fish on, then that further reduces our ability to fish,” he said. “The impact could be as much as ‘we don’t catch as much as we used to’ to the closure of the fishing grounds, then the commercial fishing fleet on this creek is done. They’ll either be out of the business or they’ll have to relocate.”
The Tarvins are latecomers to fishing, in part wooed in by Magwood, who suggested their son had a knack for the water and was well-suited to pilot a boat.
As shrimping season neared, they and others on the dock helped rig up that boat with new “doors,” wood and metal weighing hundreds of pounds, and used to spread the net to gather shrimp.
The men, with their varying views on drilling and politics, hoisted the gear on a winch before setting it in place, as the boy, Braxton, looked on. With perspiration dotting their foreheads and chests heaving from the effort, they did not talk about dolphins or tar balls or Trump or Obama among themselves.
The waters are near 70 degrees, and there are shrimp to catch.
Reported by Tonya Maxwell, Asheville Citizen-Times