Rising from the crowd that jammed a hearing room Wednesday, eighth grader Gabriella Martin said drilling off the South Carolina coast is a terrible idea that should be stopped.
If drilling is allowed, the environment could suffer, she said.
“The people who are making the decision now may not be around to see the impact this creates,’’ the 14-year-old Pawleys Island resident said during a hearing on oil drilling legislation.
“But I will be. And so will my friends.’’
Martin, the only speaker to receive applause for her comments, was among a group of people who drove to Columbia to speak for a bill that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for oil companies to search and drill for oil along the South Carolina coast.
A House agriculture subcommittee approved the bill Martin supports, but because the drilling debate has become so heated, the panel took the unusual stance of approving another bill that makes it easier to drill for oil and gas.
The subcommittee’s failure to recommend one bill over the other likely leaves it for the full House of Representatives to decide, without guidance from the agriculture committee. Still, the vote is significant because it keeps legislation moving, as the legislative session winds down.
Those who oppose offshore drilling want the House to vote on the measure this spring to give some indication of how lawmakers feel about the prospect of oil-drilling, an issue that has prompted every coastal city in South Carolina to oppose it. The Legislature doesn’t have time to pass the bill this year, but the Senate could then vote next year, the second year of the two-year legislative session.
While the federal government will make the ultimate decision on whether to allow oil or natural gas drilling off the South Carolina coast, the two bills that sparked debate in the House agriculture committee could have a substantial impact on whether the industry could establish itself here.
The bill Martin favors would ban state or local governments from allowing pipelines, tanks or other infrastructure needed by the petroleum industry to search and drill for oil off South Carolina. Reps. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, and Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, introduced the bill along with more than two dozen other legislators who oppose offshore drilling because of its potential to pollute the ocean and hurt tourism. The bill prohibits storing or transporting oil or natural gas from offshore on land in South Carolina.
As a result, even if the federal government approves the waters off South Carolina for drilling, companies seeking to do that would have a hard time establishing facilities on land that would service the industry. Similar bills have passed in California and about a half dozen other states, said Peg Howell, a North Litchfield Beach resident who has led the fight in Georgetown County against drilling. Howell said the U.S. has plenty of oil and gas, meaning there is no need to drill in the Atlantic Ocean.
“We are awash in oil and gas,’’ said Howell, a former oil industry executive.
Howell noted that Gulf of Mexico beaches have been harmed by oil spills, such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon leak, and the loss of important marshes, which control flooding, as a result of the industry’s presence. Stavrinakis said the environmental damage in Louisiana is noticeable.
“There are some areas that look like hell — and they look like hell because of this industry,’’ Stavrinakis said.
Losing the character of South Carolina’s beaches to pollution from oil and gas drilling isn’t worth it, he and other drilling opponents agreed.
“Young people along our coast use the beaches as places of recreation and as places to connect with something larger than us,’’ said Martin, who attends a Montessori school in Georgetown County.
The other bill, sponsored by four conservative Republicans including Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Spartanburg, would do just the opposite. It would prevent state or local governments from taking action to “deter, prohibit or otherwise impede’’ construction of facilities needed to help companies search or drill for oil along the South Carolina coast.
That would make it easier for the industry to establish pipelines or other infrastructure on land.
Led by the American Petroleum Institute, boosters of drilling say it could bring up to 34,000 jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to the state without hurting the environment or tourism. Some of the jobs pay greater than $100,000, drilling boosters said. The API has a formidable presence at the State House, spending more than $60,000 lobbying the Legislature last year, records show.
Rep. Mike Burns, R-Greenville, said the state needs to pass the bill making oil drilling a reality. He said drilling could bring South Carolina a “windfall of money.’’ He also said that while the country has plenty of oil and gas now, that may not always be the case.
“I don’t want to be subject to the guys over across the desert over there like we’ve been all my life,’’ Burns said, in apparent reference to Middle Eastern oil.
The prospect of searching for oil, and later sinking drilling rigs off of communities like Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island, has energized coastal leaders against the federal effort. Every major coastal city, as well as Columbia and Greenville, have come out against offshore drilling. The opposition crosses party lines in South Carolina.
The Obama administration dropped plans to drill off the south Atlantic coast because of the opposition, but President Trump has revived plans to allow for seismic testing and drilling. The plan was unveiled last year and could be finalized by next year after another round of public hearings.
Since Trump rekindled efforts to drill, 16 South Carolina cities, nine environmental groups and attorneys general from 10 states — including South Carolina’s Republican Attorney General, Alan Wilson — have sued the federal government to halt the search for oil because of its potential impacts on whales, dolphins and fish.
Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, one of President Trump’s biggest boosters, also is against seismic testing and drilling along the coast. Statewide, 56 percent of the people oppose offshore drilling and 61 percent are against seismic testing to find oil, according to a recent Winthrop University poll of 1,000 residents.
Critics of seismic testing, which relies on ear-splitting sounds to help locate underwater oil deposits, say it can harm marine life and eventually lead to drilling for oil in states with thriving tourism industries. Historic cities like Charleston and Beaufort, and vacation spots like Myrtle Beach, Isle of Palms and Hilton Head Island, could be ruined by a heavy industry that would pollute the waters that anchor the state’s $20 billion tourism economy, critics say.
Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, where the city council was the first in South Carolina to oppose seismic testing and drilling, said the Legislature should take action action against drilling to further solidify what has been a growing movement against the search for oil and gas off the South Carolina coast
Keyserling did not attend Wednesday’s hearing in Columbia, but sent a letter urging the House to approve the bill making it hard to drill for oil off the coast. In Wednesday’ letter to the Legislature, he called efforts to allow drilling and testing “insanity and insensitivity of a federal government that refuses to hear the human cry.” Beaufort residents, and vacationers attracted to the area, want to keep the coast clean and free of oil pollution, he said.
“This is, to them, not a complicated issue,’’ he said. “They come here. They want to be on the water. They want to look at the water. They want to swim in the water. They want to sail. They want to boat. They want to sit on the waterfront park in Beaufort in a swing and eat an ice cream. They want to go to the beach and walk on the beach. The attitude I get here is sort of beyond belief that so much energy has been put into being for this’’ drilling effort.