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Citing son’s influence and Trump’s triumphs, Joe Wilson now opposes offshore drilling

Rep. Joe Wilson always favored drilling and testing for oil in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of his state of South Carolina.

Now the Republican lawmaker supports a moratorium on the practice.

He acknowledged Wednesday the influence of his son, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, who is suing the federal government to block drilling and seismic testing along the state’s coast.

And the congressman credited President Donald Trump with helping the United States achieve energy independence, nullifying the need for practices that could be disruptive to the state’s coastal tourist economies.

Ultimately, the elder Wilson’s change of heart reflects shifting public opinion on offshore drilling in South Carolina, particularly among Republicans who tend to laud efforts to expand domestic energy independence and scorn environmental regulations that suppress business opportunities.

“I am encouraged to see that Congressman Joe Wilson supports a moratorium on offshore drillings, a position that reflects the widespread consensus of South Carolinians, from the Lowcountry inland,” said Rep. Joe Cunningham.

In November, Cunningham became the first South Carolina Democrat to win the coastal 1st District in nearly three decades thanks in part because of his vocal opposition to drilling and seismic testing. He has introduced a bill to ban the practices off the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Wilson said he would be open to reviewing the legislation.

Even GOP elected officials who boast of their loyalty to Trump — officials such as Alan Wilson and Gov. Henry McMaster — have broken with the president over offshore drilling and testing, sending a strong signal about where South Carolinians stand on this issue.

Wilson’s reversal also shows the potential for more unity on the issue in the South Carolina congressional delegation, which could bolster its clout and credibility in pushing the Trump administration to back off plans to expand drilling and testing off the state’s coast.

Last year, the administration announced it would seek to open up nearly all of the waters in the United States to oil and gas drilling and testing. The policy has not yet been implemented as the White House battles opposition from states that would be affected, including South Carolina.

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster told reporters December 11 the state does not have plans to join environmental groups in suing the Trump administration over offshore drilling tests, but stressed “nothing is off the table.”

Of the nine members of the South Carolina Congressional delegation, three have long been staunch opponents of drilling: Cunningham, House Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn and Rep. Tom Rice, a Republican who represents coastal Myrtle Beach.

Republican Sen. Tim Scott has said he personally supports offshore drilling and seismic testing but would oppose efforts to impose the practices on his state since so many South Carolinians don’t want it.

Fellow GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham has also asserted that if South Carolina doesn’t want drilling and testing, the federal government should respect that.

Republican Rep. William Timmons, like Cunningham first elected in November, said in a statement he was still formalizing his stance and would talk to “folks on both sides of the conversation” in the days ahead.

“My goal is to find a solution that preserves South Carolina’s coasts and also promotes American energy independence,” Timmons said.

Wilson’s new-found support for a moratorium means there are now only two members of the delegation actively advocating for drilling and seismic testing: GOP Reps. Jeff Duncan and Ralph Norman.

While Rice said it wasn’t necessary to have unanimity on the issue in the congressional delegation, having all nine members on the same side of the debate “would be helpful” to convince the administration to exempt South Carolina from its plans to expand opportunities for oil and gas exploration.

Opponents of offshore drilling say the practice could harm the environment with oil spills. Seismic testing uses airguns to blast loud acoustic pulses on the ocean floor to locate oil deposits, which opponents say could harm marine life and discourage tourism.

In an interview with McClatchy on Wednesday, Wilson explained a moratorium would allow for offshore drilling and seismic testing in the future, but only if and when it becomes necessary again and “if (it) can actually be done in an environmentally sound way.”

“I thought in particular there was a column by the attorney general which I thought outlined in a very concise way why there needed to be a moratorium,” Joe Wilson said of his son’s recent op-ed in the Charleston Post and Courier. “It was one of the points that convinced me. Not totally, but I thought it was very well presented.”

But Wilson also acknowledged he had noticed a shift in public sentiment on offshore drilling and testing over the past several months.

The last time public opinion polling was conducted on offshore drilling in South Carolina was by Winthrop University in February 2018. At that time, those for and against the practice were split 50-50.

In a sign that polling could now reflect majority opposition, Cunningham was elected in the midterms against a Republican opponent who was seen as flip-flopping on the issue.

McMaster, who quietly but steadfastly opposed Trump’s offshore drilling proposals throughout his gubernatorial campaign, also performed well in the Lowcountry in November.

Rice said he has seen a growing opposition to drilling and testing, too, attributing the shift in part to his constituents realizing their communities could be affected by the practice if Trump’s proposal went into effect.

“Up until recently, it wasn’t real, it wasn’t really a possibility,” he explained. “Once it became a possibility, people started considering.”

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she reports on the South Carolina congressional delegation for The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.


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