‘We’re not for sale’: Coastal leaders at odds with S.C., federal officials on offshore drilling

Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, left, discusses the threats that offshore oil and gas development will have on South Carolina’s healthy ocean ecosystems, fisheries and tourism, while highlighting the benefits of offshore wind, including its ability to produce more jobs and energy while at the pavilion at Waterfront Park in January.
Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, left, discusses the threats that offshore oil and gas development will have on South Carolina’s healthy ocean ecosystems, fisheries and tourism, while highlighting the benefits of offshore wind, including its ability to produce more jobs and energy while at the pavilion at Waterfront Park in January. The (Hilton Head) Island Packet

When Charleston’s City Council voted this week to oppose offshore drilling in South Carolina, the decision widened a fracture over U.S. energy policy between local government leaders and their counterparts at the federal and state levels.

Gov. Nikki Haley, U.S. Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham and a bevy of congressmen favor efforts to extract oil and natural gas off the South Atlantic coast, including the waters off the Palmetto State.

But coastal governments dislike the idea, fearing that gushing oil spills could one day contaminate the beaches their economies are based on.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said coastal city leaders realize better than anyone how an oil spill could affect their communities.

“We are closer to understanding the damaging impact of this,” Riley said Friday. “It’s not abstract to us. It’s very real.”

Charleston City Council voted 7-5 Tuesday to oppose seismic testing to locate possible oil deposits, as well as offshore drilling. So far this year, nine city councils on South Carolina’s coast have come out against seismic testing and offshore drilling.

They hope their input will help persuade the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to scrap the idea of oil and gas drilling off the South Atlantic coast. The deadline for commenting on a federal plan to allow offshore oil leases is Monday.

While federal leaders, such as U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-.S.C., say the state should at least look to see if oil exists off the coast, Riley said it doesn’t matter whether any oil exists it or not. It’s not worth trying to extract the fossil fuel from the ocean floor, he said.

Riley said he suspects most coastal residents would vote against offshore drilling if the matter were put on a referendum. Charleston and other coastal cities need a clean environment to drive the economy and provide a good quality of life, he said.

“We’re not for sale,” Riley said. “We don’t need to risk trading the quality of our environment for some prospective economic gain. There are other ways to grow our economy. South Carolina is on the move, people are moving here, and it’s a great place to do business. We don’t need this.”

Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, who has led efforts by city governments to oppose offshore oil and gas exploration, said he believes South Carolina’s congressional leaders are simply supporting national energy policy.

But like Riley, he said many constituents remember what happened in the Gulf of Mexico five years ago, when a drill rig exploded and spilled oil that washed up on tourism-dependent beach communities along the gulf. It was the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

“People are thanking me for doing this,” Keyserling said. “No one on the street likes this idea. They have this vision of what happened on the Gulf Coast. They figure (tourism) is our golden egg, so why put it at risk?”

Attempts to gain comment from Duncan and Graham were unsuccessful this week. Each has said the state could gain jobs while helping the U.S. gain energy independence if oil drilling occurs along the state’s nearly 200-mile coast.

Scott’s office responded to questions late Friday night, saying in an email that “he has continually discussed this issue with a wide variety of stakeholders from both the Lowcountry and across the state as a whole. As someone who grew up in Charleston, he understands the need for a strong balance as part of any future development.’’

Energy companies have been among major campaign boosters in recent years for Scott and Duncan, who does not represent coastal South Carolina.

Haley’s office said the effort to find oil and gas remains a worthwhile effort.

“Gov. Haley has always been a strong supporter of offshore exploration of oil and gas,” Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said in an email. “It’s good for jobs – in a way that preserves our local environment, our ports and our tourism industry.”

The federal plan has stirred passions because exploration and drilling has been banned off the South Atlantic coast for more than three decades. In 2014, that changed when the federal government opened the area for exploration through seismic testing, a method considered effective at finding deposits but that can kill dolphins and whales. In January, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management included an area off the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia that could be leased for drilling between 2017 and 2022.

In addition to Beaufort and Charleston, South Carolina cities that have formally expressed concern about seismic testing and drilling are Hilton Head Island, Folly Beach, Isle of Palms, James Island, Port Royal and Sullivans Island, according to the environmental group Oceana. Edisto Beach has voted only to oppose seismic testing.

A dozen city governments in North Carolina and at least two in Georgia also have passed resolutions expressing reservations or opposition to drilling in the South Atlantic, according to Oceana.

Federal officials will examine city council resolutions as they wade through a sea of public comments, according to the energy agency.

But how much the votes by city councils will influence the federal government in its final decision remains uncertain. The positions of governors are among eight factors the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management considers in deciding on proposed activity for oil and gas leasing, according to the agency’s public affairs office.

One coastal city that has not taken a position on oil and gas drilling is Myrtle Beach, home to the state’s single largest tourism destination. The Myrtle Beach council put off a vote last week and won’t take up the measure until after the public comment deadline.

Caren Madsen, a spokeswoman for the federal ocean energy agency, said the department isn’t legally bound to take comments after Monday’s deadline, but it will try to consider them if there is time.

Myrtle Beach City Councilman Wayne Gray said he still has questions about whether to support a resolution against offshore drilling and testing. But he indicated he’ll likely vote for the resolution against drilling – as would most of the council.

“I would venture to say most of us are opposed to allowing drilling, to be honest with you,” Gray said, noting that he’s skeptical that drilling would have a measurable impact on making the U.S. energy-independent.

Boosters of offshore drilling say the first step is to find out if any natural gas or oil exists off the state’s coast.

If the testing program locates natural gas or oil, energy companies then could bid on leases to drill off the coast. That could bring not only jobs, but millions of dollars in revenue from oil and gas leases for South Carolina, Duncan told The State recently.

Duncan also has said that if a spill did occur off of South Carolina, it would be far easier to clean up because drilling would be done in shallow water compared to the BP deep water spill off Louisiana in 2010.

Oceana’s Samantha Siegel and Hamilton Davis, energy policy director at the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said they are glad city councils are backing the efforts to stop drilling. Both groups, along with the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, have led a campaign against drilling and exploration in South Carolina.

“This is truly a grassroots movement,” Siegel said. “We know that our governor and representatives have a pro-drilling view. Our idea was to start at the local level and find voices that convey opposition to our governor and state representatives. I really think they will take note at the end.”

Even if no deposits were found off South Carolina, allowing drilling in North Carolina or Georgia could hurt the Palmetto State’s beaches if a spill occurred because contaminants can drift, Davis said. The BP oil spill in Louisiana also had an impact on beaches in other states, he said.

“You are talking about a coastal ecosystem that doesn’t recognize state boundaries,” Davis said.

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