Should Gov. McMaster put the brakes on oil exploration off South Carolina’s shore?

Matt Silfer for The Sun News.

Environmentalists say the best way to stop oil drilling off the South Carolina coast is for Gov. Henry McMaster to file a statement as the federal government solicits comments.

But McMaster, who has said before that he opposes offshore drilling, hasn’t sent in a comment yet — and the window closes Aug. 17.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is considering whether it should allow leases to private companies for oil and gas development in the Atlantic. Oil drilling and seismic testing had been barred late in the administration of Barack Obama, but President Donald Trump signed an executive order in April expanding offshore drilling and exploration.

Officials from almost all of the Grand Strand are opposed to drilling and oil exploration off the South Carolina coast.

Samantha Siegel, of the ocean conservation group Oceana, said that seismic testing boats could be in the water as soon as next summer if the leases are approved.

“Now is the time to get South Carolina out of the plan. At this stage in the process, if we are removed, it’s very, very difficult to get us back in,” Siegel said.

The federal government relies heavily on the comments of governors as it reviews oil exploration. McMaster has previously said publicly that he is not in favor of oil drilling off the South Carolina coast, but has not yet submitted a comment to BOEM.

“The very fact that he is governor and he has made comments publicly, I do believe that that holds weight,” said Brian Symmes, a spokesman for McMaster’s office.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has also said he opposes offshore exploration and drilling off the coast of that state.

Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes said coastal regions of South Carolina are staunchly opposed to oil drilling and exploration because of the risk to tourism posed by a spill or accident. Officials in North Myrtle Beach, Atlantic Beach, Briarcliffe Acres, Surfside Beach and Georgetown have all publicly said they oppose oil and gas exploration and drilling.

“It’s not a guarantee that it won’t happen, because it has happened,” Rhodes said. “Look what happened in the Gulf of Mexico.”

If the federal government does decide to open up leasing in the Atlantic, it would pave the way to seismic testing, an initial step in the oil exploration process. It has a multitude of effects on different marine animals, said Douglas Nowacek, a professor at Duke University. The low-frequency air blasts used to search for oil reserves can disrupt the populations of several types of marine life.

“It’s the loudest sound that we put in the water,” Nowacek said.

A recent study also showed that the testing can raise mortality rates of zooplankton by 200 to 300 percent. Zooplankton are a food source for a whole range of marine species, from juvenile fish to whales.

“That is a significant assault on the whole marine ecosystem,” Nowacek said.

Seismic testing can be a useful tool in other applications, researchers said. At higher frequencies, the process is less disruptive, Nowacek said, and it’s an efficient tool for scientists, according to Paul Gayes of Coastal Carolina University.

But he also said there might not be many energy sources available in the Atlantic.

“As sort of an oceanographer [with] a geologically-oriented focus area, I’m not sure we’re going to find a great deal in the offshore,” he said.

Chloe Johnson: 843-626-0381, @_ChloeAJ