Trump signs offshore drilling order, setting up fight for future of S.C. coast

The Greenville News

April 29, 2017

By Nathaniel Cary

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Friday aimed at opening vast areas off the East coast to a search for oil and gas with a goal to expand America’s energy independence.

The order was immediately met with resistance from environmental groups and from mayors of a number of cities along South Carolina’s coast. The order sets up a battle that environmentalists say they may take to court.

Trump directed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review the country’s five-year offshore oil and gas development plan and instructs that the country establish policies that promote energy independence, streamline its permitting processes for seismic surveys of the ocean subfloor and begin offering leases of offshore acreage to oil and gas companies for exploration.

The America First Offshore Energy Strategy directs the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to review regulations and permitting for seismic surveys and permitting for oil and gas development and to expedite reviews of applications wherever possible.

Environmental groups and oil and gas industry advocates had anticipated that exploration off South Carolina’s coast may be months, rather than years, away.

The move to review the five-year offshore strategy comes just a year after former President Barack Obama left the entire Atlantic coast off of the next five-year plan, which is scheduled to begin in August and last through 2022.

Presidents traditionally have held sway over the five-year development plans, and key parties on both sides of the debate expected Trump would reopen the offshore plan in the Atlantic.

His order Friday was mostly aimed at restarting exploration in the Arctic and North Atlantic where much of the nation’s offshore reserves most likely reside.

Though it doesn’t mention specific ocean areas to review, it allows a comprehensive review of the 1.7 billion acres of ocean in the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic and Gulf of Mexico that the U.S. controls. For most states, including the Carolinas, that area stretches from three to 200 miles offshore.

The Greenville News, Anderson Independent Mail and Asheville Citizen-Times explored the ongoing debate this month, speaking with fisherman in favor of drilling, mayors and business owners opposed, and experts on either side of a debate that’s likely to shape South Carolina’s coastal future.

The announced directive drew immediate fire from environmental groups, who say the seismic surveys used to map possible oil and gas deposits beneath the ocean floor can endanger marine life and who worry that drilling off the coast could result in a devastating spill like the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf.

“Oceana and our allies have fought this before, and we’ll fight it again,” said Samantha Siegel, Oceana’s South Carolina campaign director, based in Charleston. “Regardless of who is in the White House, coastal communities and businesses do not want offshore drilling or seismic airgun blasting off their coasts. Instead of expanding dirty and dangerous offshore drilling, we should focus on promoting renewables like offshore wind, which could produce twice the number of jobs and twice the amount of energy on the Atlantic coast.”

In response, mayors of coastal cities and legislators held press conferences Friday in Charleston and Beaufort to denounce the action.

On Thursday, Zinke told reporters reviews of the five-year offshore development plans would take up to two years so exploratory drilling is still a ways off. Environmental and small business groups vowed to fight the process every step of the way.

“The Atlantic Coast business community is going to aggressively defend the existing five-year plan for offshore drilling as well as resisting efforts to streamline the permitting process for seismic airgun blasting,” said Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast. “President Trump today referred to offshore drilling creating good jobs and showed no concern for those who will lose their jobs due to oil spills and leaks. The President showed no concern for commercial fishing families who will struggle due to seismic testing drastically reducing their catch.”

Marine experts say limited studies show that seismic testing, where vessels drag a web of airguns through vast areas of ocean sending sonic blasts to the ocean floor, can prove deadly to marine life by damaging hearing and affect migration, feeding and mating.

Marine biologists say the blasts, which are louder than a jet engine and rock the ocean every 10 seconds or so for weeks or months, could particularly affect endangered species like the loggerhead sea turtle and the North Atlantic right whale off South Carolina’s coast. Only about 500 of the endangered whales remain.

“Last year, a group of renowned marine mammal scientists sent a letter to the administration underscoring new scientific research that showed the impacts of seismic surveys on the endangered North Atlantic right whale and other marine life,” said John Calvelli, spokesman for the Wildlife Conservation Society. “The stress of widespread seismic airgun surveys may well represent a tipping point for the survival of the North Atlantic right whale.”

Energy proponents say there is no scientific proof the guns affect marine populations as a whole.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-Anderson, a longtime proponent of offshore oil and gas exploration, accompanied Trump as he signed the order in the White House on Friday.

Duncan said Trump’s executive order is essential for the future energy security of the U.S. and provided a clear path forward for the industry.

“I support this exploration,” Duncan said in a Facebook post. “This doesn’t mean that I think we should start the unrestricted drilling of every square foot off the coast. What I support are the people of South Carolina’s right to know the resources that may, or may not be, accessible. Seismic survey’s must be conducted — by the way, even the Obama Administration admitted to me on several occasions in hearings that there is ZERO scientific data showing substantial harm to marine life. I want South Carolina to be a part of America’s energy security. Let’s start with this common sense step to allow for updated seismic surveys.”

The seismic surveying portions of the order target the coast from Virginia to Florida in particular, and threatens the Carolina coast’s tourism, real estate and commercial fishing industries, said representatives of the grassroots Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic.

“The impact on fishing from seismic testing will so disturb the ocean seabed, it will change our industry,” said Georgetown County native Rick Baumann, who runs Murrells Inlet Seafood.

The order also called for a review to possibly loosen expensive safety regulations placed on the industry following the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, the largest oil disaster in history.

Yet American Petroleum Institute president and CEO Jack Gerard said the industry “has a long history of safe operations that have advanced the energy security of our nation and contributed significantly to our nation’s economy.”

He applauded Trump’s action, saying it would strengthen the U.S. energy renaissance.

Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called Trump’s move “reckless” and said it “betrays our children’s future for fossil fuel profits. Nobody voted to sacrifice our oceans, coastal communities and all they support to industrial pollution and the threat of a BP-style disaster.”

Suh, in her statement, alluded to likely court action, saying the president lacks the legal authority to reverse permanent protections President Obama put in place for certain North Atlantic and Arctic regions.

We will stand up for a livable world,” she said. “And we’ll fight this move to sell out our children’s future for big oil and gas.”

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