Like many ideas, it started small.
A January 2015 news release by the Bureau of Ocean Management that it was accepting public comments about its 2017-2022 plan to potentially test and drill for oil off the mid-Atlantic coast, among other areas of the country, attracted the attention of two environmentalists along the Grand Strand.
Goffinet McLaren and Terry Munson of Pawleys Island reached out to their collective networks, set up a meeting at the Waccamaw Branch of the Georgetown Public Library where 250 people showed up, and SODA – Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic – was born.
Today, the all-volunteer, nonpartisan, grass-roots organization numbers more than 2,000 people, retirees and youngsters, businessman and women, public servants, former oil industry employees, commercial fishermen and clergy, all linked by a love of the coast and a desire to preserve its beauty.
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The group has enjoyed early success, racking up resolution upon resolution among South Carolina’s coastal communities in opposition to drilling off the S.C. coast, bringing caravans of volunteers to municipal council meetings to spread the word on opposing offshore drilling and testing.
One of its earliest effrorts was in getting the more than 200 communities to sign up in opposition to drilling on the coast, even going so far as to correct bad information.
For instance, Myrtle Beach was originally listed in BOEM’s records as supporting testing. But Sally Howard, a SODA member, found out that the support was in error. A councilman had sent a letter to BOEM listing his favorable stance on drilling.
“He wrote it on city letterhead, but Myrtle Beach had not taken a vote,” Howard said. “When the city did take a vote, it was 6-1 in opposition.”
When the federal government removed North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia from the list of potential drilling sites, the organization took a deep breath to celebrate its success and then got right back to work.
“We’re still in on testing,” said Peg Howel of Pawleys Island, who has used her expertise as a company man on an oil rig to discuss the potential problems of drilling on coastal communities.
“Testing is the gateway drug to drilling,” said Howell. She has spent time on the road spreading the SODA message from Georgia to Washington, D.C., and beyond.
“We’re being eternally vigilant,” said Jim Watkins, a retired minister, who chairs the organization. Watkins also worked as a senior aide to a U.S. congressman and has seen successes in bringing a community together.
“I’ve seldom seen a group with this expertise so committed,” he said.
Some of the people on SODA’s mailing list spread the group’s gospel among their groups of friends. Others take a more visible role.
“It crosses age groups, locations, partisan identities,” said Joan Furlong of Myrtle Beach, one of the earlier enlistees in the group and a former chairwoman of the Horry County Democratic Party.
“I’m the token Republican,” laughs Ed Yaw of North Litchfield, who spreads SODA’s message in letters to the editors throughout South Carolina and beyond. Each of his missives is finely crafted, but all of them note the opposition to drilling and testing.
Like all of SODA’s key people, Yaw’s efforts are all volunteer. “I don’t think SODA even has a bank account,” he said.
That doesn’t mean it does not have a broad reach. Four-color brochures are available at each meeting, including a one that carries a reproduction of the Conservationist of the Year award given the South Carolina Wildlife Federation and charts and graphs depicting the costs of oil spills and fossil fuel production costs on the country.
The organization has also sponsored showings of “Deepwater Horizon,” the 2016 film depicting the 2010 explosion on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, with SODA members leading discussions of potential implications of a similar event should rigs be put off the coast of South Carolina.
The group takes advantage of its own expertise when it goes to Washington, D.C., to spread the anti-drilling gospel.
Friends with ties to federal lawmakers help with lodging and transportation on multiple trips to the nation’s capital.
“We were visiting Rep. Tom Rice (R-South Carolina) ad nauseam,” Howell said.
Rice has said that he opposes drilling in the Atlantic, and on Thursday (April 27) said he also opposes seismic testing.
“When I ran for office in 2012, the price of oil waa still $100 a barrel, fracking had not taken off and U.S. supply [of oil and nat6ural gas] was still down,” Rice said. “We’re becoming more and more energy independent. We have this vast supply of oil . It doesn’t make sense to go into the Atlantic.”
Rice said that he had been contacted by SODA and that he is always willing to meet with his constituents.
Each SODA visit and effort comes not only with a desire from the heart, but also from the head. Ian McLaren and Tom Strickland have provided information on the economic impact of drilling versus tourism on the coastal communities; Howell, Furlong and Mary Erickson lead the efforts in providing public education, outreach and events; Jean Marie Neal helps navigate the routes to lawmakers and committes; and Sandra Bundy works on bringing coastal businesses into the SODA family.
They all agree that the group’s success is that they have not strayed from the key mission: stopping oil drilling along the South Carolina coast.
Volunteers continue to monitor oil spills throughout the country and are quick to counter claims from the oil industry about benefits to testing and drilling in the Atlantic.
The group makes no bones about its goal: to prevent offshore seismic testing and drilling for oil and gas along the Atlantic Ocean Continental Shelf.
Maybe when that threat is removed, the group members will take a break.