Hundreds of protesters opposed to oil drilling flooded the State House grounds Tuesday, speaking out against President Donald Trump’s plan to open S.C. waters to drilling, a move they said could wreck the state’s $20 billion-a-year tourism industry.
Hours after the protest rally, which featured U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, pro-drilling supporters pushed back, saying oil-and-gas development could boost the state’s economy.
Tuesday’s events highlighted the divide in South Carolina over Trump’s plan to allow drilling along the East Coast – and S.C. waters – during the next decade.
Many coastal residents oppose drilling, but the oil industry is working to blunt opposition in South Carolina. The S.C. Legislature is considering whether to take a formal position on the issue.
Among those speaking against drilling at the rally were Sanford, R-Charleston, a dozen state legislators of both political parties and coastal residents who had bused to Columbia for the morning rally. Environmental groups organized the bus trips and Tuesday’s rally on the State House steps.
“We don’t need the unsightly oil rigs and the smelly pipelines lines sprawled across our beaches and across our coast,” state Rep. Robert Brown, D-Charleston, said to a cheering crowd gathered on the north lawn of the State House. “Why allow this dirty industry to devalue our most expensive properties, ruin our beaches and pollute the environment?”
Sanford spent much of his time revving up the crowd against drilling, asking whether South Carolina needed the industry. Many of his questions were met with resounding “Nos!” The former governor said South Carolina, not the federal government, should decide if oil drilling occurs off its coast.
Sanford, who represents Charleston and the Lowcountry in Congress, also took a shot at Trump’s interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, who suggested exempting Florida from oil drilling.
“If you can’t see an oil rig from the window in Mar-a-Lago, should you see one from the window at Pawleys Island?” Sanford said, comparing Trump’s Florida vacation home to the S.C. coastal resort. “Secretary Zinke said that he needed to go ahead and exempt Florida because its coastline was unique, tourism was important and because of the voice of local and state leaders.
“My question to you all is, ‘Is there anything more unique than the view of sunrise from Otter Island or Morgan Island,there in St. Helena Sound there on the unique coast of South Carolina?’ “
Supporters: Jobs, millions in taxes at stake
The anti-drilling rally, which organizers said drew more than 200 people, was the first activity in a day of public meetings surrounding the Trump administration’s proposal.
Drilling supporters held their own news conference before the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management hosted an open house to lay out the oil-drilling proposal and gauge public reaction. It was the only one planned for South Carolina. The bureau is accepting public comments on the plan through March 9, but will have two more rounds of public comment before a decision is made.
Large-scale oil drilling has not been allowed before off the S.C. coast, but Trump’s plan establishes a schedule for oil and gas lease sales. Sales could occur as early as 2020, with drilling over the next 10 to 15 years, according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Tuesday’s federal open house in Columbia drew about 260 people, most of them opponents of the offshore oil drilling plan, agency spokeswoman Connie Gillette said.
“I would say there were more people here tonight that probably opposed, but there were a fair amount that just wanted information,’’ she said.
Supporters of drilling said the move would make the United States more energy independent.
Industry-funded groups, as well as the S.C. Association of Taxpayers and the S.C. African-American Chamber of Commerce, said Tuesday that oil drilling could bring thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenues to the state. The taxpayers’ group estimated the state could bring in $850 million a year from oil drilling.
“When we develop our energy here at home, we benefit our economy, our communities and, yes, our environment, as well,” said Tim Page, regional director of the Consumer Energy Alliance, a national group that favors drilling. “This opportunity is too important to be missed.”
Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, a Republican candidate for governor, was the lone S.C. politician not to speak against drilling Tuesday. Bryant told reporters he favors searching for oil, but hasn’t yet decided on whether he supports drilling.
McMaster: Zinke ‘said we’d continue to talk’
Virtually every governor on the Atlantic seaboard, including South Carolina’s Henry McMaster, has expressed reservations about the Trump plan. More than 160 East Coast governments also have come out against Atlantic drilling, according to the environmental group Oceana.
McMaster and other coastal state governors are concerned drilling would lead to pollution that could hurt tourism in beach resorts that pump billions of dollars into their state economies.
South Carolina’s tourism industry, anchored by resorts like Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island, generates about $20 billion a year as millions of vacationers visit the state’s 187-mile coastline.
McMaster, who met recently in Columbia with Zinke, told The State after Tuesday’s rally the interior secretary had not caused him to re-evaluate his opposition to drilling. McMaster said he made the case to Zinke that S.C. waters are not suitable for oil and gas development.
“I presented as many facts as I could about the unique nature of South Carolina and how we’re different from a lot of other states,” McMaster said. “He didn’t say ‘yay’ or ‘nay.’ He said we’d continue to talk.”
State Rep. James Smith of Columbia, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, spoke out against drilling at Tuesday’s rally.
‘Protect our coastline’
Outside the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s open house at a Bush River Road hotel, protesters chanted anti-drilling slogans and cheered loudly as their leaders stopped to talk against the Trump plan. Many had bused over from the rally at the State House.
Environmental groups leading the charge against drilling were Oceana, the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic. Oceana’s Samantha Siegel said she was pleased with the turnout.
Lisa Scharin, a Charleston resident, said she got up at 5 a.m. to catch a bus to Columbia to protest. She said she worries that oil drilling could hurt the marshes and beaches she spends time on.
“More than ever, we really need to protect our coastline,” she said. “The majority of people want our coast protected. Our livelihood depends on that.”
Coastal residents successfully rallied against a similar proposal by President Barack Obama.
One of the biggest concerns, in addition to the toll an oil spill would take on S.C. beaches, is the impact that testing and drilling could have on marine life.
Just searching for oil deposits could kill or injure dolphins, whales and fish, critics say. That process — known as seismic testing — uses loud noises to locate oil and gas deposits, which opponents say could be lethal to sea life.
Staff Writer Avery G. Wilks contributed to this story