Seafood, beaches and oil: Peaceful county at odds over drilling plan

The lunch crowd at King Street Grille was too busy eating seafood last week to notice Peg Howell, a former oil rig boss, sitting in a corner of the marshfront restaurant with a small stack of papers and a grim smile.

Howell and local seafood dealer Rick Baughmann were in deep discussion about oil drilling along the South Atlantic coast.

Both hate the idea. Georgetown County has as much at risk as any community in the region if the government opens the coast to oil and gas drilling, said Howell and Baughmann, who are leading the charge locally to stop the federal government’s plan.

“Once we open that up, it is there forever,’’ Howell said as she went over a report she’d written about the dangers of offshore drilling. “As long as they find enough oil and gas to produce, they will always be out there. It makes me furious.’’

With a major federal decision expected soon on whether to open the South Atlantic coast for oil and natural gas drilling, opponents like Howell and Baughmann are eager to hear whether the government sticks with a plan that has coastal communities from Virginia to Georgia in an uproar.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is expected in the next month to update its draft proposal for offshore energy development. Drilling opponents, and some who support offshore energy exploration, say the bureau’s updated plan will say a lot about how the government moves ahead with drilling in the South Atlantic.

Many in South Carolina are hoping the bureau will drop the proposal, or at least exclude Palmetto State waters. As proposed last year, the government plan would open areas off the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia for oil and gas development.

Drilling could lead to spills that would pollute beaches and marshes that draw tourists to popular vacation spots, critics of the plan say. The image of oil-coated seabirds from BP’s 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico is hard for some folks to shake, they say.

Some business interests and state politicians, who are urging the Obama administration to stick with the proposal, say oil rigs off the South Atlantic coast do not mean spills would occur, but drilling does mean prosperity for poor states such as South Carolina.

John Filostrat, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said his agency is considering comments it has received since the bureau first revealed the offshore drilling plan last winter. The bureau will update the proposal and give the public another comment period before the ultimate decision is made by early 2017.

“We do weigh what the states want and we take into account comments from the governor and lawmakers down there,” Filostrat said. “We also have spoken with various interest groups over the past 12 months. We weigh that too.’’

While the drilling proposal has generated debate from Hilton Head Island to Myrtle Beach, nowhere is it more relevant than in Georgetown County.

Located between historic Charleston and glittering Myrtle Beach, Georgetown County has a string of popular seashores, such as Pawleys Island, and salt marshes, such as Murrells Inlet, that need clean water to attract tourists.

Commercial fishing contributes to the tourism economy by supplying fresh seafood to markets and restaurants. And nature preserves, including the Yawkey Wildlife Centernear Georgetown, are havens for animals such as loggerhead sea turtles, dolphins, bald eagles and an array of shorebirds. A renowned research center, the University of South Carolina’s Baruch Marine Field Laboratory, also is located on the Georgetown coast.

“If one tar ball washes up on the shore, the price is too high,’’ said Al Joseph, who won a seat on the Georgetown City Council last year after campaigning against drilling.

Tourism versus shipping

But unlike Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island, Georgetown County has a port. And unlike Charleston, the port badly needs business. Port boosters contend that drill rigs off the coast could help create jobs and revive activity on the docks just south of town.

State Rep. Carl Anderson, a 55-year-old Georgetown native, said he remembers a bustling port when he was growing up. Longshoremen had regular jobs unloading cargo, and many gained bonuses that helped support their families, he said.

“That tells you what type of business we had going here in Georgetown,’’ Anderson, a Democrat, said in an interview last week at the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce. “It was a booming business.’’

Today, the port of Georgetown handles about 550,000 tons of cargo annually, about half of what it brought in 20 years ago, according to the S.C. Ports Authority.

More activity at the port would offset the loss of hundreds of jobs from the shutdown of Georgetown Steel last year after decades of operation, Anderson said. Many of the workers who need jobs are African-Americans, said Anderson, who is black. More activity also could justify federal funds to maintain the port, which would make Georgetown even more attractive to shipping, he said.

“It would bring a lot of jobs to our area that is much needed,’’ Anderson said. “From what I’ve read (of drilling), it’s not hazardous. Some of our friends on the other side, conservation people, would say ‘No, No, No.’ But when we look at it, it doesn’t have a real big problem.’’

Georgetown County’s unemployment rate was 7.8 percent in December, the most recent figure available. That was 2.3 percentage points above the state average.

Whether the tiny port of Georgetown would be attractive to the oil and gas industry is a point of disagreement. Conservation groups that oppose drilling say the port couldn’t be deepened enough to be of much use to the industry. Georgetown’s port now is about 24 feet deep and needs to be deepened to 27 feet, said Bill Crowther, a former Upstate automobile company executive who is leading efforts in Georgetown County to open the coast to drilling.

Crowther said, however, that one of the major ports for the oil and gas industry on the Gulf – Port Fourchon, La. – is not a deepwater port.

He said industrial areas of Georgetown would work well with the oil industry from a land-use standpoint. He doesn’t envision an oil refinery being established at Georgetown, but he said drilling-related businesses could boom at the port and downtown. Ships would need to ferry supplies from Georgetown to the offshore rigs, he said. They also would be needed to transport workers back and forth. Some materials also could be manufactured in Georgetown to provide the rigs, he said.

Crowther, president of the pro-drilling Atlantic Energy Alliance, said offshore oil and gas leasing could be as big a deal for South Carolina as the state’s successful efforts to attract the Boeing and BMW manufacturing operations.

“The port of Georgetown has the opportunity to become the energy support base for the entire East Coast,’’ he told The State newspaper. “If that were to happen, this would be an economic boom that has not previously been seen here.”

Drilling critics say the projections of multiple thousands of local jobs are suspect because many workers would come to the area from other parts of the country

Crowther noted that tourism and oil drilling have co-existed in the Gulf of Mexico for decades. If a spill did occur, it would be so far offshore, it would not affect the South Carolina’s coast, he said. Drill rigs would be at least 50 miles offshore, according to the federal plan.

Many more people support oil and gas exploration in South Carolina than the public might realize, he said. The American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry group, released a poll this past week showing that 67 percent of the South Carolina voters surveyed support offshore development of oil and natural gas – a poll that conservation groups questioned.

Oil and water

Despite arguments for offshore drilling, many people in Georgetown County are not convinced that it can be done without affecting the environment and the tourism economy.

Georgetown County, with up to 750,000 visitors annually, has long been a regional vacation destination, attracting people from Columbia, Greenville, Charlotte and other areas. But it has in recent years been discovered by vacationers from across the country.

The county is home to Pawleys Island, a sandy strip of seaside cottages touted as the East Coast’s oldest beach resort; Litchfield Beach, with a series of high-rise condominiums; Debordieu, a gated community with a booming summer tourism business; and Murrells Inlet, known as the “Seafood Capital’’ of South Carolina.

“Half of this town is run off of the tourist season,’’ said Georgetown resident Hillary Caddell as she walked the beach at Pawleys Island on a warm day last week. “If there is a spill people are not going to come here.’’

The opposition to drilling in Georgetown County is organized and vocal. Led by Howell, Baughmann and several others, a group called Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic – SODA – has done extensive research on the toll the oil and gas industry has had on the environment in other areas.

In the past year, the group has written letters to the editor, participated in a news conference outside Gov. Nikki Haley’s office in Columbia, spoken at community meetings, attended federal drilling sessions and generally raised a ruckus in their attempt to stop the federal plan.

SODA representatives also helped persuade local governments to oppose drilling. The group includes a rocket scientist, two former federal intelligence officers – and Howell.

Howell, an Ohio native who is married to a Georgetown County Council member, once worked as one of the few female “company men’’ on an oil rig. She was in charge of operations for the Chevron rig, having to make sure things ran smoothly in the potentially dangerous work, Howell said.

Oil once provided her a good job, but Howell, now a consultant, said she had a change of heart about the business after the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. When Howell heard about drilling in the Atlantic, she was energized to get involved.

The oil industry “was banking on keeping this low key,” the North Litchfield Beach resident said. “So I came back and started yelling.”

During her recent lunch meeting with Baughmann at Murrells Inlet, Howell showed him a thick PowerPoint document she put together to illustrate the environmental realities of oil and gas drilling. The document says every area of the U.S. coast where drilling has occurred has experienced multiple spills that caused billions of dollars in damages.

Her report also includes photographs of Port Fourchon, La., after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. The pictures show an extensive complex of oil and gas-related buildings submerged in water.

“Imagine that’s Georgetown,” she said.

Unlike Crowther, she said a polluting refinery, like one proposed years ago, could end up in Gerogetown.

Before lunch, Baughmann reviewed his inventory at Murrells Inlet Seafood, the business he runs on U.S. 17 amid the community’s row of restaurants. The glass counter was filled with locally caught shrimp, catfish and clams. Later in the day, he was expecting a shipment of vermilion snapper when fishing boats docked at the Crazy Sister Marina just down U.S. 17 from his business.

“Who, who isn’t drunk, would want to risk this bounty and the livelihood of the coastal towns to bring in big oil?” Baughmann asked.

A key question these days is whether a torrent of local calls to abandon all or parts of the proposal will outweigh the support for offshore drilling by Haley and much of the state’s congressional delegation. Every coastal city council, as well as Columbia’s, has approved resolutions against offshore drilling.

At Independent Seafood, a landmark 76-year-old retail business in Georgetown, fish cutter Trevor Morris said he can’t imagine a less appealing industry to locate in the community than the oil and gas business.

“Why do you want to fix something that isn’t even broken?’” Morris asked. “I just think it’s too much to lose. I’d rather see a nuclear plant come here than I would an oil platform.”

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