Hicks column: A telling sign that South Carolina attitudes on offshore drilling have shifted

Charleston Posts and Courier
June 24, 2018

By Brian Hicks

In at least one way, South Carolina’s climate has changed noticeably.

It’s nothing you can detect with thermometers or barometers, wind gauges or rain gauges. But it’s real.

The best way to measure it is through politics.

During a GOP gubernatorial debate last week, Gov. Henry McMaster and Greenville businessman John Warren said there was nothing that could make them support offshore drilling.

At the same time, the Republican mayors of two coastal towns endorsed Democrat Joe Cunningham — an ocean engineer — in the 1st Congressional District race, simply because his opposition to offshore drilling was clearer than his opponent’s.

Once this was an issue that divided South Carolina by geography and, to some extent, party. Not anymore.

In April, Greenville City Council voted unanimously to oppose any drilling or exploration for oil or natural gas off South Carolina’s coast.

Columbia’s City Council did the same two years ago, becoming the first inland municipality in the state to take such a stand.

Of course, every coastal community from Myrtle Beach to Hilton Head is in lockstep here.

But the best sign public opinion has shifted comes from all these state and federal politicians.

They won’t touch offshore drilling with a 10-foot pipeline.

It’s the economy

Last year, the Trump administration announced plans to open almost all U.S. coastal waters to offshore gas and oil exploration.

Florida — with 1,350 miles of coastline and a tourism industry that rakes in more than $67 billion annually — understandably balked. The White House promptly gave them a pass.

McMaster asked for a similar exemption, for the same reason. South Carolina may have only 187 miles of coastline, but tourism has a $15 billion economic impact here. Some estimate that it accounts for 10 percent of the state’s jobs.

Although that may make tourism the state’s No. 1 industry, South Carolina has long been divided on offshore drilling. In a February poll, only 51 percent of state residents opposed it, a number skewed somewhat by stronger support in coastal counties.

At the time, 63 percent of Republican voters said they supported the idea. Apparently, that’s changed.

The president’s support is astronomical among South Carolina Republicans — 80 percent, based on a recent Winthrop poll. Most of his supporters laud all his policies, so you’d think they’d be reluctant to cross him on this.

After all, it didn’t work out so well for congressman Mark Sanford who, incidentally, was an early opponent of offshore drilling.

So it’s telling when the state’s two Republican candidates for governor, both of whom are courting Trump voters incessantly, slam the door on the idea.

That suggests offshore drilling is even more unpopular than the polls show.

Common sense

Honestly, it just makes sense for South Carolina to oppose offshore drilling.

Past surveys off the Atlantic coast have suggested there’s little oil or natural gas out there, certainly not enough to break American dependence on foreign oil. But it’s a good way to hurt marine life, fishing and shrimping businesses.

And then there’s the potential for environmental calamity.

No one’s forgotten the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which cost Gulf Coast communities untold billions in losses. In some ways, the Gulf is still recovering.

A similar accident along our coast could wreck the state’s entire economy. State government would take a hit that would be felt from the Lowcountry to the Upstate.

That has always been the argument from environmentalists, and even the state’s Small Business Chamber of Commerce. But it also likely reflects the will of the people.

That same Winthrop poll found that nearly 60 percent of South Carolina voters said stricter environmental laws and regulations were worth the cost.

But there’s no better sign that most people consider this a monumentally bad idea than the tonal shift of politicians. And that’s decidedly good news for the tourism industry, the coast and just about everyone else in the state.

It proves South Carolina has come a long way from the vacuous chants of drill, baby, drill.


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