March 21, 2019
BY SAMMY FRETWELL
Columbia—Not only do most South Carolina residents oppose oil drilling off the coast, but they also are against blasting the ocean with loud noises to locate petroleum deposits, a new Winthrop University poll says.
The poll of 1,000 residents found that 56 percent oppose oil drilling and 61 percent oppose seismic testing, a practice that some research shows can harm dolphins, whales, sea turtles and fish.
Winthrop’s poll found that Democrats and those typically voting Democratic soundly oppose both drilling and seismic testing, while most Republicans and those who vote Republican support drilling and seismic testing.
Eighty percent of those identifying as Democrats or those who lean Democratic oppose seismic testing and 76 percent oppose drilling off the coast.
In contrast, 47 percent of the Republicans or GOP-leaning voters said they favor seismic testing to find oil and gas, while 42 percent are opposed. The poll found that 55 percent of Republicans and their supporters favor oil-drilling off of South Carolina’s coast.
Overall, the number of people opposed to offshore drilling is slightly more today than it was in a February 2018 poll, according to Winthrop. This year, 56 percent oppose offshore drilling, compared to 51 percent last year.
Scott Huffmon, the Winthrop political scientist who conducted the poll, said the difference in drilling opinions from last year to this year is not significant. But overall, the results indicate that people in South Carolina are worried about how oil drilling and testing would affect the state’s booming tourism industry, he said.
“The number one economic sector in South Carolina is tourism, so maybe they are worried about it,’’ Huffmon said, noting that the results show the “the general public is not in favor, Republicans are not overwhelmingly in favor and Democrats are decidedly against it.’’
The search for oil and gas off the South Carolina coast has sparked sharp disagreements in recent years, pitting coastal cities that oppose seismic testing and drilling against state politicians and oil industry officials.
Seismic testing is so loud it can kill or drive away marine life, while drilling increases chances of oil spills that could hurt South Carolina’s tourism economy, which is anchored by Myrtle Beach, Charleston and Hilton Head Island, opponents say. Boosters say seismic is not as harmful as it is purported to be and drilling can be done with limited environmental impacts while creating thousands of jobs.
Debate over oil drilling has become so pronounced that it influenced the outcome of last year’s congressional race for the Charleston-area seat formerly held by Republican Mark Sanford. Democrat Joe Cunningham defeated Republican Katie Arrington after campaigning against offshore oil drilling. The defeat was a rarity in South Carolina, where Republicans have for years held all but one congressional seat.
Officials with the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and Oceana, environmental groups that oppose seismic testing and drilling, said the poll results are not surprising.
Ann Timberlake, a conservationist and lobbyist for the environmental group Oceana, said people are increasingly aware of the hazards of oil spills and pollution from drilling off South Carolina’s beaches.
“For most South Carolinians, it is not complicated,’’ Timberlake said. “They love the coast.’’
Timberlake, former head of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, said “Our coast defines who we are. It’s where we recreate. It’s where we make family memories. People are proud of our coast. It’s an economic engine.’’
Alan Hancock, a Conservation League energy specialist, said he hopes the poll results spur the state Legislature to take a position on seismic testing and oil drilling. At least a half-dozen pieces of legislation have been introduced, some opposing drilling and some supporting it, but no hearings have been held this year.
Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, is against drilling along the state’s coast because of tourism and environmental concerns.
Those interested in seismic testing and oil drilling off the coast, including the American Petroleum Institute, downplayed the poll results.
The API’s Mark Harmon and Don Weaver, who heads the S.C. Association of Taxpayers, said people have been influenced by media coverage that has been dominated by anti-seismic and drilling groups. That’s particularly true with seismic testing, but Weaver expects opinions to change as more information gets out about the virtues of seismic testing, he said.
“Folks in favor of testing, they have not ratcheted up the media campaign the other side has,’’ Weaver said, noting that testing boosters will eventually “have a better campaign to explain to people, that all we are doing right now is testing. It’s not going to cause some kind of permanent harm to marine life.
“The more the sensible science is explained,” Weaver said, “those numbers will flat line.’’