State Sen. John Courson is criticizing federal plans to allow offshore oil and gas drilling in South Carolina, saying the practice is incompatible with the state’s economy and its environment.
“Many of us who are elected officials who do not represent coastal areas are also opposed to offshore drilling in South Carolina,’’ Courson, R-Richland, said during a conservation briefing Wednesday. “It just doesn’t make sense, particularly when one looks at the fact that economic and environmental interests interlock in South Carolina.’’
The state Senate has no authority to decide the matter. But Wednesday’s comment by Courson, a state Senate leader who has been critical of drilling in the past, adds to the growing chorus of policymakers recently voicing opposition to drilling in the south Atlantic Ocean.
While Gov. Nikki Haley and some congressional leaders favor drilling, every city council from Hilton Head Island to Myrtle Beach has come out against allowing offshore drilling.
Republican Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, Republican U.S. Reps. Mark Sanford and Tom Rice, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn and Republican state Sen. Chip Campsen are among those who also oppose drilling. Columbia City Council voted last year to oppose drilling.
Concerns focus on whether drilling could lead to oil spills that would foul South Carolina’s multibillion-dollar tourism economy, which is based on clean beaches and wetlands.
The U.S. Department of Ocean Energy Management is expected by the end of this year to make a decision on whether to allow drilling in the South Atlantic. A revised draft plan to allow drilling off the coast is expected out in the next month. That will be the last chance for the public to comment, drilling opponents said.
Environmental groups are pushing Haley to change her mind and tell the federal government not to allow drilling off the South Atlantic coast.
Haley has stuck with her position that drilling, if done properly, could help the state’s economy and reduce sources of foreign oil. U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., has been among the leaders in South Carolina supporting drilling.
During Wednesday’s Senate briefing on conservation issues, Sullivan’s Island Mayor Patrick O’Neil said offshore drilling would increase risks of oil spills and result in the need to build industrial facilities to support offshore rigs. A former resident of Louisiana, he said he’d seen first hand the impact drilling has had on marshes in that state. He said the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the gulf shows the impacts the industry can have on a coastal area.
“It really sends a chill through me,’’ he said. “If you can imagine the consequences that might have on our really important tourism industry, you can see that could have very, very negative consequences on the entire state.’’
Wednesday’s briefing is an annual meeting with senators in which conservation groups lay out their legislative priorities for the year.
At the meeting, attended by about one-third of the Senate’s 46 members, environmentalists also urged lawmakers to upgrade crumbling roads before building new ones; support the state Conservation Bank; support efforts to protect Lake Marion from an aging toxic waste dump next door; and oppose a bill that would allow developers at Kiawah Island to build on about 20 acres along the ocean of a narrow sand spit.
The latter issue — development at Capt. Sam’s spit — is tied to a bill now before the Senate that was originally intended to stop the march of new development closer to the sea by forever freezing a building restriction line. But an amendment to the bill would let out-of-state developers build at Capt. Sam’s, a storm vulnerable area in Charleston County.
Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Berkeley, said the state needs to allow building at Capt. Sam’s to avoid a lawsuit by developers. Others, who say the state shouldn’t allow building near the ocean at a time of rising sea levels, doubt such a lawsuit would be successful. Senators postponed a vote on the bill Wednesday after the briefing, but may take the matter up as soon as Thursday.