The S.C. Senate has taken a major step in the fight against oil drilling along the S.C. coast, agreeing overwhelmingly this week to block the petroleum industry from establishing refineries, pipes and other infrastructure needed to support drilling.
Wednesday night’s 40-4 vote ends months of inaction in the Legislature over the increasingly unpopular plan by President Donald Trump to allow seismic testing and drilling along the South Atlantic coast.
The Senate’s approval of a budget proviso, which supporters hope would eventually prevent drilling, will move to the S.C. House as part of the state budget. The Senate’s anti-drilling proviso likely would be decided by a budget conference committee composed of both Senators and House members.
Drilling opponents in the Senate said the proviso, offered by Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, only makes sense in a state where tourism is king. The state’s more than $20 billion tourism economy could be threatened by oil spills and the industrial complex needed to support drilling, they said.
“Once we open this door, we could all be impacted with significant economic damages to our coast,’’ Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston said, noting how the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill hurt the Gulf coast economy.
The vote followed a news conference Wednesday morning in which Campsen, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson, Democratic Sen. Nikki Setzler of Lexington County, and others spoke against drilling. Campsen said during the news conference that he would offer the budget proviso.
Campsen’s proviso is a temporary measure, but is seen as an important start to eventually keeping oil rigs from being established off South Carolina’s beaches. The budget legislation would be good for one year. It could be extended next year if bills to halt drilling do not pass the Legislature in 2020.
The question of whether to oppose or support oil drilling had been mired in the Legislature. A House subcommittee sidestepped the issue last week, voting for both a pro-drilling bill and an anti-drilling bill. Otherwise, there had been no action in the Legislature.
Campsen’s budget proviso was an attempt to jumpstart efforts to halt future drilling off the S..C. coast, which features major resorts such as Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island, and historic waterfront cities like Charleston and Beaufort. Those communities attract millions of visitors each year from across the country.
Campsen said Thursday he’s glad the Senate saw things his way.
“The vote was stronger than I anticipated,’’ he said. “Our coastline is the most magnificent on the entire East Coast. Offshore drilling inevitably would require industrialization of our coastline because of the infrastructure needed. It would threaten our tourism industry.’’
Oil drilling backers say fears about pollution and industrialization hurting tourism are overblown. They have said the industry can be developed without much impact on the environment, arguing that oil-drilling could bring hundreds of thousands of jobs to a state that needs to diversify its economy. They also say that while the nation has plenty of oil now, it may need reserves from the Atlantic Ocean if the oil can be located and extracted.
The Senate’s budget proviso against drilling “is not something we would support,’’ said Mark Harmon, a South Carolina representative of the American Petroleum Institute.
The federal government could still authorize oil-drilling off the South Carolina coast, but setting up shop would be much harder for the petroleum industry if the Senate bill gets through the Legislature. Without land-based pipes, tanks or other infrastructure to support offshore drilling, companies would have to work through ports in other states, farther away. The Campsen bill is intended to chill efforts to establish oil rigs off the coast, as well as to use seismic testing to locate oil deposits. It is unknown how much oil exists off the Atlantic coast.
Last week, anti-drilling supporters said efforts similar to Campsen’s have been approved in about a half dozen other states.
Trump’s push to allow drilling reverses a decision by former President Barack Obama not to allow drilling off the Atlantic coast. Unlike the Gulf of Mexico, the South Atlantic coast has never had oil drilling. Local governments in South Carolina and other Atlantic states have come out strongly against drilling.
Environmentalists were ecstatic after the Senate’s action Wednesday.
“State lawmakers should immediately seek every opportunity to protect South Carolinians and our vibrant environment and economy from dangerous offshore drilling and seismic testing,’’ Coastal Conservation League Director Laura Cantral said in a statement Wednesday night. “This proviso would effectively block expansive industrialization of our entire coastline -- something that is incompatible with the fragile beauty of South Carolina’s shore and our quality of life.’’
Senators said the budget proviso would allow no funds to be authorized for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control or local governments to approve plans supporting offshore drilling for oil or gas. It prohibits the permitting of onshore infrastructure related to offshore drilling, Senate Republicans said.
The four senators who voted against Campsen’s budget proviso were Danny Verdin, R-Laurens; Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg; Wes Climer, R-York; and Tom Corbin, R-Greenville.
Frank Knapp, who heads the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, also applauded the decision late Wednesday, saying opposition to oil-drilling is bi-partisan.. The small business chamber has been outspoken in its opposition to offshore drilling.
“The bi-partisan South Carolina voice of opposition to exploring and drilling for oil off our coast is now a scream,” Knapp said in an emailed statement. “Our deeply red state is turning purple, not in partisan terms, but in our anger at the Trump Administration trying to force destruction to our beautiful ocean, marine life and local economies from seismic blasting our ocean and turning our pristine beaches into sludge from the inevitable oil leaks and spills from drilling.”