April 28, 2017
By Bo Petersen
South Carolina coastal mayors Friday decried the Trump administration order that could re-open the offshore to oil and natural gas exploration and drilling.
At the Charleston Maritime Center, three local coastal mayors and a Charleston councilman spoke at a press event held by local anti-drilling groups, one of a number of similar events along the coast. They said the billion-dollar tourism economy is far more valuable than gains from the oil industry would be. They called on people to protest the order to elected officials.
“The disruption to tourism would be substantial. The risks are just too great,” said Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg. He was joined by mayors Dick Cronin of Isle of Palms, Pat O’Neil of Sullivan’s Island, Jane Darby of Edisto Beach and councilman Mike Seekings.
They said tourism creates one in every 10 jobs in the state and cited the opposition to drilling of 23 coastal cities and towns in the state alone.
“Tourism is the economic engine that drives the coastal economy. We implore President Trump not to sacrifice our jobs to create jobs in the oil and gas industry,” Darby said.
The Trump administration on Friday ordered a review of the Obama administration closings and lease denials of potential new offshore water, including the region. It doesn’t — immediately — change the prospects prospect for testing and drilling off the South Carolina coast.
Any new decision would be several years away, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters in a Thursday briefing.
More troubling for those who oppose the work is that Trump also ordered a review of all regulations concerning oil, natural gas and renewable energy leasing in federal waters, as part of a policy “to encourage energy exploration and production, including on the Outer Continental Shelf,” the order said.
That could lead to streamlining the exhaustive leasing process and easing strict requirements opponents have focused on to fight leases.
The executive order signed Friday is more aimed at Alaskan waters and reversing the permanent closing of Atlantic waters from the Chesapeake Bay north, where the most promising reserves might lie. Leases were denied for waters from North Carolina south, but the federal Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management issues leases on a 5-year rotation. The lease review would have re-started anyway.
Industry leaders have said they would keep pushing to open the waters, and conservation groups continue to fight it.
The order “is a great day for America workers, unleashing American energy and clearing the way for thousands and thousands of high-paying American energy jobs,” Trump said at the signing ceremony.
Drill or don’t drill cuts to the heart of coastal life, where interests are divided between exploring for potential economic benefit or restricting the work to protect marine life and a billion-dollar tourism economy. Residents widely oppose both testing and drilling as a quality-of-life issue.
The move has been expected for weeks; Trump campaigned partly on overturning the bans placed or re-instated by the Obama administration. Coastal elected officials, residents, conservation and business groups opposed it in with a swarm of statements and protests.
Twenty seven Democratic senators called on the administration not to revise the current policy. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C. introduced a longshot bill in the conservative-controlled House of Representatives that would suspend exploration and drilling off the East Coast for 10 years. Industry representatives say advances in drilling technology have made the operations safer, and that seismic surveys have taken place for a half-century with no direct evidence it harms sea animals, commercial fishing or tourism. They say the offshore fossil fuels have been under-utilized and tout the potential job creation.
National Ocean Industries Association President Randall Luthi called the order signing a new day and a new attitude.
“With the expected economic growth worldwide, we will need more energy than is currently being produced, and all forms of energy will be needed to meet the growing demand. Offshore oil and natural gas have proven to be reliable and cost efficient sources of energy,” he said.
“For years, we have sought a comprehensive U.S. energy policy. However, in reality, our nation’s energy policy has been a cobbled-together raft, drifting with the prevailing political winds and currents of the ‘favored’ energy source of the day. This Executive Order can be used to craft a long-term, consistent energy blueprint to provide jobs, state and federal revenue, and economic and energy security for America,” Luthi said.
Conservation opponents say the recent record of oil spills and research on wildlife belies the safety claims. A groundswell of opposition among coastal residents and conservation groups has grown to millions, including more than 120 municipalities, 1,200 elected officials, 41,000 business and a half million fishing families.
“If Secretary Zinke allows BOEM to do its job, to factually weigh the nation’s real energy needs versus our immensely successful Atlantic Coast economy dependent on our healthy ocean, growing objections from coastal states and the loud opposition of citizen stakeholders; we are confident that the Atlantic Ocean will be kept free of offshore drilling,” said Frank Knapp. the president of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast.
But Knapp said he is concerned the BOEM process will be subverted by industry influence.
“The industry wants more and more money for their pockets, and does not mind stiffing the people. Its all about dollars to them,” said JeanMarie Neal, of the South Carolina-based residents group Stop Oil Drilling in the Atlantic. “Every mayor in coastal South Carolina says this type of industry will hurt their communities. The fact that they are united says a lot.”
‘Every square foot’
State governors are given a say in BOEM decision-making, and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley was part of a coalition that worked largely behind the scenes with industry lobbyists to urge federal officials to open the Southeast coast to oil and gas exploration.
Gov. Henry McMaster has not opened or closed the door on it. At a recent press conference he cited the need to be energy sufficient and secure, but added “we also need to protect our precious natural resources.”
The state’s federal legislative delegations have varied views on the issue, but largely support at least testing to see what’s there. Sanford has vocally opposed to it. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., who criticized the Obama decision, was at the Trump signing and said Americans having instant access to electricity is a quality of life issue.
“This doesn’t mean that I think we should start the unrestricted drilling of every square foot off the coast,” he said. “What I support are the people of South Carolina’s right to know the resources that may, or may not be, accessible.”
The brewing battle is the latest among any number the conservation groups expect as administration and congressional efforts are made to rescind laws and restrictions set by the Obama administration — battles they expect will come down to legal challenges.