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Grand Strand officials celebrate reversal of Atlantic offshore drilling plans

Offshore drilling opponents cheer decision to keep Atlantic coast closed

Members of Stop Offshore oil and gas Drilling in the Atlantic (SODA) celebrate after the Interior Department nixed plans to open up the Atlantic coast from Virginia to Georgia for oil and gas exploration Tuesday afternoon, citing opposition.
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Members of Stop Offshore oil and gas Drilling in the Atlantic (SODA) celebrate after the Interior Department nixed plans to open up the Atlantic coast from Virginia to Georgia for oil and gas exploration Tuesday afternoon, citing opposition.

Opponents of offshore drilling celebrated an “incredible day” Tuesday when the Obama administration pulled the plug on plans to open the Atlantic coast to oil and gas exploration.

“We won!” exclaimed Rosemary Wolfe, a North Myrtle Beach resident who joined the Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic group last year after learning of a draft proposal that would have opened up planning areas for testing along the coast from the Maryland-Virginia state line to the Georgia-Florida line.

Every coastal municipality in South Carolina as well the state’s capital formally opposed offshore drilling, according to Samantha Siegel, a campaign organizer with the international ocean conservation group, Oceana. The S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, the Gullah/Geechee Nation, more than 450 businesses across the Palmetto State and federal representatives on both sides of the aisle also turned out in opposition.

With a decision on whether to drill for oil off the Carolina coast imminent, folks in Georgetown County are increasingly nervous. For those who gain their living from the sea, the prospect of the government allowing oil rigs off of Murrells Inlet,

“This is an incredible day for the Southeast,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It represents the hard work of thousands of people and protects some of our most cherished places, from the Chesapeake Bay and the Outer Banks to the South Carolina Lowcountry and Georgia barrier islands. Communities along the Atlantic have been strongly unified against this plan, and we are grateful the President listened.”

When you factor in conflicts with national defense, economic activities such as fishing and tourism, and opposition from many local communities, it simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with any lease sales in the coming five years.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell

For many opponents the reversal of plans marked a sigh of relief at the end of a year-long struggle to protect the coast from offshore drilling, which opponents said would have hurt marine life, marred the coastlines and killed the $18 billion tourism industry on the state’s coast. Supporters said offshore drilling could lead to more jobs.

“This is fantastic news for the coast of South Carolina,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC). “It’s a decision that speaks volumes to the importance of voicing one’s opinion and local input in the political process. Residents along our coast should be proud of the way they united on this issue and sent a compelling message to Washington.”

Peg Howell, a SODA member and former oil rig engineer, was toasting the offshore drilling plan reversal with champagne alongside her fellow SODA members in her North Litchfield home Tuesday afternoon.

“We’re very excited,” she said.

“We started hearing things this morning when that New York Times article came out,” Howell said. “Until you see it on the BOEM (Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) website or see an official announcement you just hold your breath.”

BOEM announced it had shelved plans for Atlantic exploration around noon.

“After an extensive public input process, the sale that was proposed in the Draft Proposed Program in the Mid- and South Atlantic area has been removed from the program,” the U.S. Department of the Interior and BOEM announced in a press release.

Leaders of the departments said conflicts with “commercial interests, current market dynamics, limited infrastructure and opposition from many coastal communities” had changed their minds. A conflict with other ocean uses – namely with the Department of Defense, which uses the waters for military tests - was also noted in the reasons against exploration.

This is an incredible day for the Southeast.

Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center

“We heard from many corners that now is not the time to offer oil and gas leasing off the Atlantic coast,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said. “When you factor in conflicts with national defense, economic activities such as fishing and tourism, and opposition from many local communities, it simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with any lease sales in the coming five years.”

Offshore drilling opponents rejoiced. Howell could breathe again.

“It makes me very happy. I think it’s the right thing,” said Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes. “We have to make sure that we don’t allow anything to damage tourism.”

SODA started working on efforts to stop the exploration in February 2015, lobbying coastal municipalities to adopt resolutions against offshore drilling.

We’re wildly excited. I mean who thought a year ago that we could topple big oil on this? In the beginning you always have those doubts.

Peg Howell, member of Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic and former oil rig worker

Myrtle Beach was one of 24 South Carolina coastal communities to pass the resolution urging legislators to stop the federal plan.

“It’s been a year of hard work and exciting results,” Howell said. “We’re wildly excited. I mean who thought a year ago that we could topple big oil on this? In the beginning you always have those doubts.”

But Howell says the fight may not be over.

“We have to remain vigilant that Congress still has a say in this matter, that the president still has a say in this matter,” she said, adding that every five years BOEM is required to evaluate opportunities for new energy reserves. “In another five years we could be fighting this fight again.”

The drilling plan announced Tuesday covers potential lease sales from 2017 to 2022 and calls for leasing 10 areas in the Gulf of Mexico — long the epicenter of U.S. offshore oil production — and three off the Alaska coast.

The Interior Department estimates there are 3.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil on the Atlantic's outer continental shelf and 31.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Energy industry experts say the reserves may be far greater.

“We are cautiously optimistic that our Atlantic will stay safe in the coming years,” Howell said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Emily Weaver: 843-444-1722, @TSNEmily

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