The federal government dropped plans Tuesday to allow oil and natural gas drilling off the South Carolina coast in a dramatic policy reversal that angered some state officials but delighted coastal leaders, environmentalists and grassroots organizers.
South Carolina is among four South Atlantic states that no longer will be considered for offshore drilling, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said. The waters off North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia also were dropped from consideration.
The decision represents a major change of course for the Obama administration, which last year offered plans to allow drilling along the South Atlantic after Southern governors said they favored it.
But a groundswell of opposition developed in each state, with city councils from Georgia to Virginia voting to oppose offshore drilling because of the potential impacts on tourism and the environment. Every coastal city council in South Carolina passed a resolution against the plan.
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Meanwhile, the U.S. military also expressed reservations, saying offshore drilling could disrupt maneuvers off the coast.
Jewell announced the department’s action during a news conference Tuesday, after reports leaked out that the plan would be scrapped. She said concerns from the military and local opposition along the South Atlantic coast played a major role in her agency’s decision.
“In the Atlantic, we heard from many corners that now is not the time to start leasing,’’ Jewell said. “This includes many local communities whose livelihoods depend on fishing, tourism and shipping activity. When you factor in conflicts with commercial and national defense activities, market conditions, and opposition from local communities, it simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with the Atlantic lease sale in the near future.’’
The government proposed allowing the use of seismic tests to locate oil and gas deposits, which would guide fossil fuel companies on where to drill. The plan would have kept rigs 50 miles off the coast and would not have started until 2021, at the earliest. Until the plan was introduced last year, the South Atlantic coast had been off limits to oil and gas development.
All told, the government received more than 1 million comments on the proposal, which allows for continued oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico.
Jewell, who said Tuesday’s announcement should not be surprising given the amount of opposition, said the decision won’t prevent future administrations or Congress from reviving the plan to allow energy development in the South Atlantic. But she said if President Obama’s successor decides to pursue Atlantic drilling, it could take time because the process is “laborious’’and requires extensive public review.
Opponents of offshore oil and natural gas drilling rejoiced at the news. Many in South Carolina were involved in grassroots campaigns to stop the proposal.
“There is always the possibility that Congress could step in, but we are very excited about this decision,’’ said Peg Howell, a former oil industry rig boss and organizer of a group in Georgetown County that fought drilling.
Proponents have said the offshore oil and gas industry could boost the economy and bring thousands of high-paying jobs to South Carolina. Gov. Nikki Haley, U.S. Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, and U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan all favored offshore energy development, in part because they said it could help the nation gain energy independence.
“It’s just another disappointment from D.C,’’ Haley said Tuesday afternoon. The governor said the decision was “not something that really surprises me, to see them turn around and pull the rug out from under us. This wasn’t just about jobs.”
Haley said no one ever wanted to harm the coast or the tourism industry, but the government needed to “at least explore the possibilities’’ oil and natural gas were offshore.
Duncan, who represents the 3rd District in western South Carolina, reacted more bluntly, saying “it is downright shameful how radical groups used scare tactics to spread misleading and outright false information to communities across the Atlantic coast.
“I am disappointed, but not surprised, that this administration would once again choose placating his political allies over helping the economic needs of the American people. We know that offshore energy development can be done safely and that it creates tens of thousands of jobs.’’
Often citing pollution that resulted from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, opponents said the prospect of oil spills on beaches and in marshes wasn’t worth it in a state with a multibillion-dollar coastal tourism industry. South Carolina has a nearly 200-mile coastline that includes wildlife refuges like Cape Romain and the Yawkey Wildlife Center, and vacation hot spots such as Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head Island and Charleston.
A campaign since last winter by environmental groups and grassroots organizations helped turn the tide against drilling. Scott, Duncan and Haley found themselves at odds with government leaders along the state’s beaches. Some state leaders also joined the call to drop the plan, including Republican Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster and U.S. Reps. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., and Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.
“Residents along our coast should be proud of the way they united on this issue and sent a compelling message to Washington,’’ Sanford said.
Some drilling opponents said Tuesday that low oil prices and a glut of gasoline made the Interior Department’s decision easier, but they also said federal officials realized the extent of opposition in the Southeast.
Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, who helped persuade 23 city councils along the coast to oppose drilling, said the government’s decision shows “you can have an impact.’’ He and Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg visited Washington this week in a final effort to change the Obama administration’s mind.
“This decision is a testament to the fact that local voices still matter on national issues,’’ said Hamilton Davis, climate and energy director for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League in Charleston. “The coastal communities in South Carolina that would have been most impacted by offshore drilling stood up to big oil and won. What a victory for our environment, our economy, and the future of our coast.”
Environmental groups opposing the plan in the Palmetto State included Oceana, the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Coastal Conservation League, and the Conservation Voters of South Carolina
Samantha Siegel, an Oceana representative from Charleston, called the decision a “huge grassroots victory that is a direct reflection of how hard our coastal communities fought to preserve the Atlantic and truly what South Carolinians are capable of when we work together.”
The Associated Press, McClatchy Washington Bureau writer Vera Bergengruen and staff writers Cassie Cope and Andrew Shain contributed to this story.