Offshore drilling opponents staggered just when they thought they had won

Offshore drilling opponents staggered just when they thought they had won

Charleston Post and Courier
December 18, 2016

By Bo Petersen and Emma Dumain

After a massive, decade-long, grassroots fight appeared to have stopped oil and natural gas drilling offshore, its proponents are waging a last-minute desperation campaign to keep the victory from being snatched out from under them.

The Obama administration is expected to approve this week a permanent ban on both drilling and seismic testing for the resource in the Atlantic, environmental groups say. The groups have mounted an intense lobbying effort, including a petition delivered Wednesday by the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast.

The alliance is a coalition that says it represents more than 35,000 businesses and 500,000 commercial fishing families from Maine to Florida.

“It just needs to be done. An oil economy is not who we are on the Atlantic coast. Testing and drilling just simply need to be taken off the table forever,” said Frank Knapp, S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce president who co-founded the alliance.

A White House source told The Post and Courier last week there were currently no plans this week to announce a permanent ban on seismic testing or offshore drilling. The source would not confirm whether there were plans in the near future to make such an announcement.

But in any event, it might not matter. Environmental groups widely expect the incoming Trump administration or Congress to try to overturn any Obama order to not allow drilling or testing in the Atlantic.

“The concern is that we are going to have to fight this battle again,” Knapp said.

Overturning the most significant order, an exclusion of the waters from oil and natural leasing for the next five years, “is a heavy lift,” said Jackie Savitz, Oceana vice president. Under current federal law, it would require re-opening the exhaustive process of studies, comment periods and hearings that led to it, as well as justifying the reasons for the second look.

But the process could be short-circuited, said Sierra Weaver, Southern Environmental Law Project senior attorney. “Absolutely, Congress could try that,” she said. “There’s always the chance that Congress could step in.”

For Lowcountry residents who helped galvanize what turned into an East Coast-wide popular protest against the drilling, the prospect of re-opening the waters has been a gut shot. Alice Morrisey of Won’t Drill Lowcountry called it “a moment of defeat.”

Drill or don’t drill cuts to the heart of coastal life, where interests are divided between exploring for potential economic benefit or restricting exploration to protect marine life and a billion-dollar tourism economy. Residents widely oppose both testing and drilling as a quality-of-life issue.

Conservationists oppose them because of the potential to disorient and injure marine animals. Business groups have joined them, concerned for the industry’s impact on multi-million dollar coastal tourism revenue.

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. In seismic testing, powerfully loud air guns are fired underwater every 16 seconds or so to read “echoes” from the bottom geology.

The Southeast coast is considered marginal at best for the fossil fuel reserves, but the industry has pushed hard for access. The effort led to concerns among opponents that leases were sought to build shore infrastructure that could export land-mined fracking oil and gas to Europe, or to gain a foothold for potential future mining of methane hydrate, a combustible gas that is thought to be relatively abundant.

Gov. Nikki Haley was part of a coalition of governors who 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. The governor, as well as the majority of the state and congressional legislators, have publicly supported the testing.

Nine of every 10 municipalities from New Jersey to Florida have come out against testing and drilling, including 23 in South Carolina alone. More than 1,100 local, state and national elected officials also have opposed it.

The opposition here was gathered by groups like the Sullivan’s Island-based Won’t Drill and the Pawley’s Island-based Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic. They’re not going to quit, Morrisey said.

Won’t Drill and SODA will meet in early January to re-organize area environmental groups that coalesced to oppose the drilling and keep up a coordinated fight, she said. The groups felt that “moment of defeat” discouragement last March, too, when they learned that seismic test leasing would continue.

“Then we dug our heels in and began to fight again,” she said. “Protecting the coast is not a done deal, ever. I know the bans can be reversed, but that can also be opposed.”

The regional and national environmental groups are counting on that opposition to rally again. They plan to keep lobbying and potentially wage legal fights.

“We don’t know if we’re going back to a ‘Drill, baby, drill’ mentality, or whether there will be some business sense factored in. We’re definitely doubling down our efforts,” said Savitz of Oceana.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to sleep on this issue right now,” said Weaver, of the environmental law center.

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