Could oil drilling hurt beach tourism? Lawmakers raise concerns

For those who gain their living from the sea, the prospect of the government allowing oil rigs off of Murrells Inlet, Litchfield Beach, Pawleys Island and Georgetown is scary. File photo.
For those who gain their living from the sea, the prospect of the government allowing oil rigs off of Murrells Inlet, Litchfield Beach, Pawleys Island and Georgetown is scary. File photo. tdominick@thestate.com

The politically sensitive question of whether to support oil drilling off the South Carolina coast sparked plenty of talk Tuesday as lawmakers wrestled with an issue that has divided the state.

Legislators serving on a special study committee steered clear of endorsing drilling, despite testimony from a university professor and an industry advocate that lucrative oil and gas deposits might lie off the state’s coast. Some lawmakers openly questioned the need for offshore drilling.

“You ultimately have to decide, ‘Is it worth it?’ ’’state Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun, said.

Ott and Rep. Lee Hewitt, a Murrells Inlet Republican, said they were worried about the effects on the state’s tourism economy if the offshore petroleum industry established itself in South Carolina. Ott said shrimpers and fishermen learned how pollution can affect their livelihoods after an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico seven years ago.

“At the end of the day, you still have to take that into consideration,’’ Ott said. “I certainly would not ever want to have that on my conscience for something that I was involved with.’’

Tuesday’s hearing, which lasted four hours, was the first in a series of legislative meetings to weigh the pros and cons of oil drilling as President Donald Trump moves to reverse ex-President Barack Obama’s decision against Atlantic offshore drilling. Trump is seeking to open up the South Atlantic under a new five-year plan. A preliminary decision could be made by year’s end.

It’s a debate that could ultimately show whether South Carolina, a state that backed Trump in the presidential election, sides with the president or if concerns about coastal tourism prevail. The Trump administration can decide whether to drill offshore without South Carolina’s endorsement, but the federal government prefers to have backing from state leaders, said officials with the U.S. Office of Ocean Energy Management.

In the Legislature, two bills are pending: one that would back Trump’s effort and another that would go against it. The special legislative committee that met Tuesday will provide a report to lawmakers in January to help them decide which direction to go.

The prospect of oil rigs off the South Carolina coast is of concern to many coastal communities such as Hilton Head Island, Myrtle Beach and Isle of Palms. These communities thrive on tourism and fear oil spills could contaminate the seashore. Last year, city councils in every coastal community voted against oil-drilling, even though then-Gov. Nikki Haley and many in the state’s congressional delegation backed offshore energy development.

Unlike Haley, Gov. Henry McMaster has said he’s against it.

Boosters of the oil and gas industry, including the Consumer Energy Alliance, say exploration and drilling can be done safely and should be considered as a way to help enrich South Carolina’s economy. Royalties from oil and gas development have helped communities along the Gulf of Mexico, boosters say.

“Despite the claims of anti-development activists, American energy development and a healthy environment can go hand in hand,’’ the alliance’s Brydon Ross said in written remarks to the committee.

University of South Carolina professor James Knapp, an earth scientist and former employee of Shell Oil, encouraged the state to support the search for oil and natural gas deposits. Studies of offshore energy deposits are about three decades old and need updating, he said. Those studies found little oil off the South Carolina coast.

But Hewitt said the oil and gas industry has a dangerous downside that could affect tourism and shipping. He is one of 32 lawmakers who wrote to the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management last week to oppose drilling off South Carolina’s coast.

“We’re a state of tourism,’’ he said. “We’re a state of a large port that depends on car manufacturers getting their goods out (and) tire manufacturers. So in the case of an oil spill, there could be a negative impact to the state.’’