Editorial | It’s too early to say if drilling is worth it

The following editorial appeared Tuesday in The (Hilton Head) Island Packet:

Allowing drilling off of South Carolina’s coast in the next federal offshore leasing plan is inherently risky to the Atlantic Ocean, its marine life – and to the state’s tourism industry.

The 2010 drilling rig explosion that spewed 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico crippled that area’s tourism-based economy from which it has yet to fully recover. A similar spill off of the Palmetto State’s coast could be equally catastrophic.

The question that begs an answer is whether enough oil and gas lies in wait off of the state’s coast to make the environmental and economic risks worthwhile.

For this question, there is much political spin but no recent scientific data.

Ask representatives with The American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s main lobbying group, and they predict there’s enough oil to result in about 11,000 direct S.C. jobs by 2035 and a more than $2.7 billion injection to the state’s economy.

Ask various environmental groups that oppose drilling, and they'll say the institute is grossly exaggerating the numbers.

And ask other drilling proponents, and they'll point out that all current estimates are based on tests conducted 30 years ago, using obsolete technologies. They speculate that there is likely far more oil and gas reserves than currently estimated.

The basic question of the amount of oil and gas available must first be answered before any decision can be reached on whether to proceed with drilling.

The Interior Department endorsed seismic air gun tests earlier this year that should provide the answers. The tests themselves are controversial. The loud air guns used to generate underwater sound waves for mapping the ocean floor and detecting oil and gas could damage the hearing of whales, dolphins and other animals, threatening their ability to eat, mate and communicate.

More than 50 members of Congress have sent letters to President Barack Obama, opposing tests and saying that as many as 138,500 marine mammals could be injured by them.

But it appears the tests will go forward. We hope the government will work closely with environmentalists, the National Marine Fisheries Services and others to limit the impact on marine life, banning testing in sensitive areas including the migratory path of the endangered North Atlantic right whale and applying other timing limitations to lessen the impact on other species.

The tests, while controversial, appear the best way to quantify our oil and gas deposits. Only then can we determine whether drilling is worth the possible risks to our state.