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Coastal Carolina talks out oil issue

The Gulf oil spill has raised many questions for the future of oil drilling off the Carolina coast, and the answers may be a long time coming, according to experts who spoke at Coastal Carolina University on Friday.

Academics from CCU and the University of North Carolina-Wilmington discussed the consequences of the spill and drilling on tourism, the environment, energy policy and the economy Friday morning as part of its 13th Annual Economic Growth Summit. Across the board, most offered more questions than answers, pointing to areas where more research is needed.

Environmental risks

Past spills offer some hints at the effect a spill might have on the Grand Strand but hardly give a definitive model, said Jennifer Culbertson, a marine biology researcher at UNCW.

In the Carolinas, there are too many variables, such as the type of oil and the time of year of the spill, to say for certain what the environmental cost would be, Culbertson said. It's not for her to say whether the economic gain of drilling would justify environmental costs, she said.

Culbertson emphasized that long-term effects of the Gulf spill are still unknown.

"When you don't see oil on the surface any more, it doesn't mean that it's not there," Culbertson said.

"One thing you won't see is these microbial degraders that you've been hearing about on the news. They break this oil down, which is great. The problem is they are very slow. As my old adviser used to say, 'They're like teenagers doing their chores.'"

Long-term effects on smaller organisms such as fish larvae won't be known for years to come, she said.

Culbertson's research shows that oil spills affect the burrowing depth of fiddler crabs, a common species on the Carolina coast that helps recycle nutrients for marsh grass. Shallower burrows make it harder for the crabs to survive cold weather and avoid predators, such as raccoons, she said.

Renewable energy

The spill has drawn attention to U.S. dependence on oil, and the Carolinas should use this opportunity to jump-start renewable energy initiatives, said Paul T. Gayes, director of the Burroughs & Chapin Center for Marine and Wetland Studies at CCU.

"You can have these brief flurries of activity around a spill ... but then it slides back into complacency, and we go back to business as usual," Gayes said.

The Carolinas should take a sober look at its future options for energy, he said.

Drilling for oil and natural gas off the coast may supply energy in the short term, but isn't a long-term solution, he said. Further exploration is also necessary to know how much oil or natural gas lies below the ocean floor of the coast, he said.

The U.S. and the Carolinas are presented with a choice of whether to address renewable energy now or wait until the oil supply runs out, he said.

"For South Carolina to be successful we have to lead and we have to innovate," Gayes said.

Gayes focused on wind energy as part of the solution for South Carolina, taking advantage of the state's high winds offshore. Wind energy won't solve all of the state and country's energy demands but could make up 20 percent of our energy supply by 2030, he said.

Further research is needed to see how much output an offshore wind turbine would have, so that businesses can predict how much electricity they will be able to sell prior to investing in wind turbines, Gayes said.

The spill and tourism

It's unclear how many tourists switched plans and chose to visit the Grand Strand rather than the Gulf Coast after the spill, although tourism is up significantly this summer, said Taylor Damonte, director of the Brittain Center for Resort Tourism at CCU.

"We have had a great summer, but there are a lot of other issues that have impacted that other than the Gulf crisis," he said.

The negative publicity from the spill undoubtedly brought some tourists to the Strand, but rising national demand for getaways is a larger factor that is driving up occupancy, Damonte said. Fewer people chose to vacation in 2009, creating a pent-up demand in 2010, Damonte told The Sun News in interviews earlier this year.

The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce's advertising campaign this year is also showing some results, Damonte said.

The chamber spent more than $14 million in the lead up to the summer season, as part of its largest-ever promotional campaign for 2010. Much of that money was spent on TV advertising in areas with new air service.

The number of air passengers flying to Myrtle Beach is matching trends in overall tourism revenue this year for the first time, Damonte said. That indicates that the advertising may be working on those markets, driving up tourism revenues regardless of whether the visitors in those markets choose to fly or drive, he said.

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