Hundreds of small businesses opposed to offshore oil and gas drilling called Wednesday for Gov. Nikki Haley to switch positions and oppose the search for fossil fuels along the south Atlantic coast.
After a news conference outside her office in the State House, small business leaders delivered a letter to the governor asking that she withdraw South Carolina from federal consideration as a site for offshore drilling. Representatives of more than 400 businesses signed the letter, many of them small companies that rely on natural resources and tourism to make a living.
Pollution from the oil and gas drilling could hurt their ability to make a living, business leaders said during the news conference. At the same time, a method used to locate oil and gas — called seismic testing — could be disruptive to sea life, they said.
“What drilling would do, potentially to me, could be very devastating,’’ James Island restaurant owner Robert Barber said, holding up a cluster of oysters he took from the salt marsh near his home. “These oysters would be threatened by this seismic testing and drilling.’’
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Haley’s staff met Wednesday with several of the business leaders, but the governor’s position did not change. The governor believes “exploring offshore for energy is critical to our future because it means jobs, energy independence from other countries and security for our state,’’ Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said.
The federal government ultimately will decide whether to allow drilling, but the support of governors is significant to U.S. officials. Federal officials are nearing a decision on whether to allow companies to search specific areas of the Atlantic Ocean for oil and gas. Drilling leases would be considered later.
Whether to allow offshore oil and gas drilling has become increasingly divisive in South Carolina, a state with a nearly 200-mile coast that thrives on tourism.
Many of the state’s larger business groups, including the Palmetto Agribusiness Council, support searching for oil and gas deposits. Drilling boosters say it can help the economy while being done with minimal environmental impacts.
Last week, the agribusiness council released highlights of a recent survey showing that 64 percent of the people questioned across South Carolina backed exploration and drilling. Another poll also has shown strong support, drilling backers say.
But Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican and Haley supporter, told The State newspaper that he opposes offshore drilling. He said he would need assurances Atlantic offshore drilling could be done safely before he could back the plan.
“If I had to make the choice right now? No,’’ McMaster said.
Since the campaign heated up, more than 20 local governments on the Palmetto State’s coast, including Charleston and Myrtle Beach, have adopted resolutions opposing offshore drilling and seismic testing. The city of Columbia and the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce also have come out against oil and gas drilling along the coast.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was even pulled into the fray Wednesday. In an interview for a radio show hosted by Small Business Chamber president Frank Knapp, Clinton said she’s “very skeptical about the need or the desire for us to pursue offshore drilling off the coast of South Carolina’’ or other Southeastern states.
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, a Charleston Republican and Haley’s predecessor as governor, has broken with many fellow congressional leaders from South Carolina and come out against the search for oil and gas. He is pushing the federal government to slow down the effort and conduct more studies.
Clinton said the state should rely more on solar and wind power before opening up fragile areas for “something as potentially risky as offshore drilling.” Knapp, who interviewed Clinton on WGCV radio in Columbia, is one of the small business leaders who met with Haley’s staff Wednesday.
Before any drilling occurs, scientists must first find out whether oil and gas exist off the South Atlantic coast, an area off limits to oil and gas extraction until recently. Seismic testing relies on the use of loud cannons to locate oil and gas deposits that critics say could disrupt or kill marine life, such as endangered whales, while also killing fish that bolster the coastal economy.
Murrells Inlet seafood market owner Rick Baumann, who has been in business since 1967, said fishing in the Gulf of Mexico still is hampered by lingering effects from the BP Horizon oil spill more than five years ago.
“Imagine the damage to our coastal economy if this disaster occurred in the Atlantic,’’ Baumann said during the news conference. “Millions of local jobs would be negatively affected for many years.’’