Environmentalists balk at Obama’s exclusion of S.C. coastlines from drilling ban

Environmentalists balk at Obama’s exclusion of S.C. coastlines from drilling ban

Charleston Post and Courier
December 20, 2016

By Emma Dumain

WASHINGTON — National environmental groups are heaping praise on President Barack Obama for banning oil and gas drilling in huge swaths of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.

Some South Carolina environmentalists, however, are fuming.

That’s because Obama’s executive order does not include protections for coastlines south of the Chesapeake Bay area. That leaves both Carolinas, Georgia and Florida still vulnerable to continued threats of offshore drilling and seismic testing, which many fear could disrupt their homes and livelihoods.

“We are extremely disappointed,” Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce and co-founder of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, told The Post and Courier.

Last week, Knapp’s organization, representing 35,000 businesses and 500,000 commercial fishing families, delivered a letter to the Obama administration asking for a ban on drilling and seismic testing.

“Oil and gas exploration and development activities threaten the vibrant coastal environment that supports nearly 1.4 million jobs and contributes $95 billion to the annual gross domestic product, mainly through tourism, commercial fishing and recreation,” Knapp and fellow BAPAC members wrote. “Our currently thriving East Coast businesses are reliant upon healthy ocean ecosystems and are inextricably tied to clean, coastal waters.”

The pleas appeared to have fallen on deaf ears.

Alan Hancock, a spokesman for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, was also decrying the decision to exclude South Atlantic states from Tuesday’s executive order.

Hancock conceded it was important to acknowledge South Carolina is still protected against offshore drilling for five years, thanks to a partial ban on the practice the Obama administration instituted in March. But short of a permanent ban “it’s not good enough.”

“While this is encouraging news for Virginia, the rest of the Southeast coast is just as environmentally and economically valuable and deserving of protection,” Sierra Weaver, leader of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s coast and wetlands program, said. “The message from coastal communities and businesses could not be louder or clearer: We do not want offshore drilling. Not just for the next five years but for all time.”

Knapp and Hancock could not speak to why the administration chose not to issue a more inclusive ban. They speculated, however, that Obama might have been prioritizing areas in need of protection for their ecological attributes rather than their economic needs.

Meanwhile, other South Carolinians were also upset by Tuesday’s announcement — but for other reasons.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, a longtime supporter of seismic testing, released a statement slamming the latest development.

“Instead of listening to rebuke after rebuke of his policies in successive elections, (Obama) would rather act like a king,” Duncan said. “Governors in South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia have all agreed energy exploration off the coast would be a blessing to our states, and yet he ignores the will of the American people.”

Duncan was referring to the coalition of governors, including Gov. Nikki Haley, which recently worked largely behind the scenes with industry lobbyists to urge federal officials in the Obama administration to open the Southeast coast to oil and gas exploration. Haley, as well as the majority of the state and congressional legislators, have publicly supported the testing.

Two South Carolina Republicans who oppose testing and offshore drilling are U.S. Reps. Mark Sanford and Tom Rice, who represent coastal districts that include Charleston and Myrtle Beach, respectively.

In issuing the Tuesday ban for areas north of Virginia, Obama used an arcane provision in a 1953 law to ban offshore leases in the waters permanently. According to the statute “the president of the United States may, from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer Continental Shelf.”

The hope is that the ban, despite relying on executive powers, will be difficult for future presidents to reverse. The White House expressed confidence on Tuesday that Obama’s directive will withstand legal challenge, saying the language of the statute provides no authority for subsequent presidents to “unwithdraw” waters from future lease sales.

But Duncan said in his statement he was looking forward to President-elect Donald Trump taking a stand against the so-called power grab by the outgoing Obama administration, which will end its era in just one month.

“Offshore energy production in the Atlantic will unlock billions of dollars in economic production, create thousands of American jobs, and strengthen our national security position,” Duncan said. “It’s time to act according to national interest and make America great again.”

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