Politics & Government

Beaches vs. oil: Busloads of coastal residents will be in Columbia to oppose drilling

The thought that oil platforms could appear one day off South Carolina’s coast bothers Jean Marie Neal, a Pawleys Island resident.

Neal, an organizer of an anti-oil drilling group in Georgetown County, is among scores of coastal residents expected to be in Columbia Tuesday for a hearing on President Donald Trump’s proposal to open the South Atlantic coast — and South Carolina — to oil-and-gas exploration and, eventually, drilling.

Neal and others say the state’s scenic beaches and multi-billion-dollar tourism economy aren’t worth the risk of inviting in what they see as a dirty, polluting industry.

Places like Pawleys Island, a quiet resort of vacation cottages south of Myrtle Beach, are perfect examples of what’s at stake, she said.

“Pawleys Island depends on tourism, and this is a very fragile coast here,’’ Neal said. If drilling is allowed, “you’re introducing pollution to all the water and areas that have never been exposed to this before.’’

Supporters of oil drilling dispute that, saying it is worth looking under the Atlantic’s waves to see if any oil is there. If there is, it could help the United States by providing another source of the fossil fuel that the nation depends on, they say.

Opening Atlantic waters for oil production “could have remarkable benefits for job creation, U.S. energy security, domestic investment and revenue to the government,’’ the American Petroleum Institute says.

Offshore oil and natural gas development could produce 1.3 million barrels of oil a day and create nearly 280,000 jobs, consultants said in a 2014 report for the institute.

“The administration’s recently announced offshore leasing plan is a crucial step in a long process of assessing U.S. energy resources,” said Mark Harmon, executive director for the S.C. Petroleum Council. “It’s been 30 years since we last examined the outer continental shelf in the Atlantic, and modern advances in seismic technology will allow us to more accurately determine what energy resources are available for our nation’s future.’’

Opponents say the testing that would be conducted to determine if viable oil and gas fields are off the coast would produce loud noises that could harm dolphins and whales. The drilling that could follow could pollute the ocean and the beaches that anchor South Carolina’s multi-billion-dollar-a-year tourism economy, they say.

Tuesday’s meeting in Columbia, hosted by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, is scheduled to be the only one in South Carolina before decisions are made on offshore exploration and development. The federal agency is taking comments until March.

Anti-drilling rallies are planned by environmental groups before the Tuesday meeting.

At those rallies, U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston, and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin are expected to speak against the Trump Administration plan. The national environmental organization, Oceana, and Neal’s group, Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic, also will participate in the rallies.

The S.C. Coastal Conservation League plans to bring busloads of coastal residents from Beaufort, Charleston and Murrells Inlet.

‘They’ll get an earful’

Oil drilling is a hot topic in South Carolina and along the Atlantic Coast today.

Many Atlantic coast governors, including South Carolina’s Henry McMaster, have come out against the proposal as opposition in coastal cities and counties has grown.

Two years ago, the Obama Administration backed away from a similar plan after more than 20 S.C. cities and counties protested.

Trump reopened the process, touting the need to provide more energy for the United States.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has mentioned the possibility of exempting Florida from off-shore drilling, prompting similar requests for exemptions from other states. Zinke flew to South Carolina earlier this month to meet with McMaster.

The meeting Tuesday, at the DoubleTree Hilton on Bush River Road, starts at 3 p.m. Its format concerns some anti-drilling groups.

The ocean energy agency will have tables set up where people can talk individually with regulators about different aspects of drilling. Anti-drilling groups would rather have those concerns expressed in a group setting.

Neal and the Coastal Conservation League’s Alan Hancock said coastal residents also are concerned the meeting is being held in Columbia. The capital city is more than two hours from the state’s beaches. They urged the Trump Administration to hold the meeting on the coast but failed.

Nonetheless, federal regulators can expect a big crowd, environmentalists said.

“They’ll get an earful,’’ Neal said.

If you want to be heard

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will hold a meeting Tuesday on President Donald Trump’s proposal to open the South Atlantic coast to oil-and-gas exploration.

Where: DoubleTree Hilton at 2100 Bush River Road

When: 3 to 7 p.m.

Drilling opponents to rally

Where: North steps of the State House

When: 11 a.m. Tuesday

Who: Speakers are expected to include U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston, and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, a Democrat