In South Carolina, push for offshore drilling gaining momentum

The push to start drilling in the Atlantic Ocean is gaining momentum and dividing people along the grand coast of South Carolina, where some local leaders fear what it could mean for tourism.

“If we had an event like they had in the Gulf it would be devastating for us,” said Hilton Head Mayor Drew Laughlin, referring to the April 2010 drilling rig explosion that killed 11 and gushed 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. “Our beach and our environment are our signatures. Our entire economy is built on hospitality.”

The Interior Department recently endorsed seismic testing to find out how much oil and gas lies off the coast of the Carolinas and other Atlantic states, a key move toward allowing drilling for the first time in decades. Not content to wait, members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation have introduced bills demanding that the drilling be approved.

“Safe, responsible energy production has the ability to transform our economy, creating thousands of new jobs in communities across the nation,” U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said this month as he announced his new Southern Energy Access Jobs Act.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., also has a bill to open the waters for drilling. So does U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who used to oppose drilling the Atlantic off his state’s coastline but switched positions, saying he believes the oil and natural gas can help American energy independence.

South Carolina’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, has become a leading voice calling for the Obama administration to allow offshore drilling in the Atlantic.

Drilling boosters point to the potential for jobs and economic development. The American Petroleum Institute, the main lobbying group for the oil industry, maintains there could be 11,000 direct jobs in South Carolina by 2035 from offshore oil and natural gas drilling in the Atlantic, as well as a contribution of more than $2.7 billion to the state’s economy.

There are questions, though, about just how much potential South Carolina has for energy development. Mitchell Colgan, chairman of the geology department at the College of Charleston, says there is not much oil off the coast of South Carolina, and that the economics of harvesting Atlantic natural gas are questionable given that the nation is already awash in the stuff from fracking onshore.

Drilling proponents, though, say modest estimates of Atlantic reserves are based on tests that are decades old. James Knapp, a professor of earth and ocean sciences at the University of South Carolina, said he thinks the estimates are too low, and that the new seismic tests endorsed by the Interior Department will give a more realistic picture of what’s out there.

The political drumbeat in South Carolina for offshore drilling worries Billy Keyserling, mayor of the coastal town of Beaufort. North America is already on the path toward energy self-sufficiency as a result of the recent onshore natural gas boom, Keyserling said, and it doesn’t make sense to take the risks with the Atlantic.

“We have enough on our plate with rising seas, global warming. . . . Mother Nature will fight back,” Keyserling said in an email.

S.C. coastal towns rely on tourism, an economic driver that supports one in 10 jobs in South Carolina, according to the U.S. Travel Association, and accounted for $17.6 billion worth of spending in 2012. But there are tourism officials who support drilling, even in the coastal hub of Myrtle Beach, which attracts some 15 million visitors each year.

“I know a lot of people assume we would be naturally opposed, but we believe that developing our natural resources and becoming energy independent is a top priority for America,” said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, which is also the convention and visitor’s bureau.

Dean said the organization is generally supportive of offshore drilling, so long as oil and gas drilling rigs and other infrastructure aren’t visible from the beaches.

He praised Sen. Scott’s proposal to allow the state to decide how far from the coast drilling infrastructure can be allowed if it is within 20 miles of shore.

Dean said energy development can create jobs and economic activity, while being compatible with tourism.

The mayor of Myrtle Beach, John Rhodes, was once a fierce opponent of offshore drilling, telling a local television station in 2008 that “we will do anything to oppose any potential threat to our economic engine, our beaches.”

But Rhodes did not return repeated phone calls and emails over the past week asking for his current position.

Charleston, the largest city on South Carolina’s coast, could benefit from increased activity in its port if offshore drilling is allowed. But the South Carolina Ports Authority doesn’t have a position on drilling at this point, and local officials are concerned about the impact on tourism.

Joseph Riley, who is serving his 10th term as mayor of Charleston since being first elected in 1975, said he doesn’t understand why the political tide among South Carolina state leaders seems to have turned toward favoring offshore drilling after long years of debate.

“The environmental quality of our coastal zone is a part of the inheritance of every person in South Carolina, and I just don’t think that it’s worth it,” Riley said.

The Obama administration is weighing whether to include the Atlantic oil and gas drilling in the next federal offshore leasing plan, which runs from 2017 through 2022.

The Interior Department in February released its final environmental review endorsing seismic air gun tests to Atlantic map oil and gas deposits from Delaware past the Carolinas to Florida’s Cape Canaveral. The tests themselves are controversial, with fears for the impact on the hearing of whales and dolphins, and the Obama administration received more than 55,000 public comments on the proposal.

The Palmetto Agribusiness Council and the South Carolina Farm Bureau were among those in favor, suggesting offshore Atlantic drilling could help lower energy prices and aid the businesses they represent. But others, such as Jenny Welch of Charleston, said drilling in the Atlantic “poses a giant threat to our marine life as well as to our tourism industry.”